Thompson Rivers University

Five tips to engaging your online class

April 13, 2021

When schools closed across the country last spring and classes abruptly transitioned to virtual learning, the TRU Open Learning (TRU-OL) team was well positioned to show teachers the ropes with the Graduate Certificate in Online Teaching and Learning (GCOTL).

Offered by Thompson Rivers University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work for K-12 teachers, post-secondary faculty and private sector educators, the five courses in this online certificate prepare instructors to design online teaching content and teach in an online environment.

Open Learning Faculty Member Keith Webster says that prior to the pandemic, his students were largely K-12 teachers preparing to teach in a range of situations: some fully online, but many in blended environments (a mixture of face-to-face and online) or using a few online modules to supplement their everyday face-to-face classes.

But when classrooms closed and teachers were required to generate fully-virtual content for their entire course loads on short notice, Webster observed his course discussions shift toward tackling current issues his students are encountering in their virtual classes—from engaging primary students with platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, to equity issues like access to technology and learning support at home. He says many who are new to doing all their teaching virtually are surprised at the amount of time it can take to develop quality online learning, so strategies to make the most of preparation time quickly became a key topic for discussion.

“It often comes down to breaking down the big problem into something smaller and easier to approach, and then figuring out how to reach those learning objectives,” Webster says. “Certificate students can also discuss their own experiences and challenges they are facing with others in their classes, and offer insights and suggestions.”

Webster passes along five tips to anyone facing the challenges of virtual teaching, and says they could just as easily be applied to face-to-face teaching:

  1. Start by identifying learning outcomes and then ask, what online activity will help your students achieve those outcomes?
  2. Produce your own media or adapt openly-shared media: it will be more effective for teaching and learning than professional content. Don’t worry about the last 10 percent of aesthetic quality professional (but less personalized) content delivers—your class will get more out of the same content you produce or source, and you can make your own updates when needed.
  3. Consider the best use of the tools you already have before looking for new solutions. Do you already know how to use a program that supports your activity, or can your IT team suggest something you already have available before looking for new platforms?
  4. Set an amount of time you’re willing to figure out a new technology before reaching out for support from peers, online tutorials or web searches. Set a 15-minute rule, for example, and don’t get trapped figuring out how to use a tool on your own.
  5. Cultivate a community you can work with in teaching online, of other professionals you know who are also working on the same challenges. Consult this network about new issues you’re facing and share solutions.

Students completing the full GCOTL program generally follow the recommended course order over subsequent fall, winter and summer terms, but many also take just one or a few of the certificate courses to focus on areas where they want to grow.

Classes are asynchronous, so students can review material on their own schedule. Assignments are due weekly, but Webster—who has taught high school himself—says the courses are designed to fit around teachers’ schedules, providing flexibility through things like long time frames for group participation and scheduling assignments around report-card writing and other busy times in the school year.

Online and blended learning continues to advance, and educators can prepare themselves to meet these challenges with the support of TRU-OL’s network of experienced instructional designers.

Teachers can apply to start the graduate certificate in Online Teaching and Learning program this fall until August 1, or register at any time for individual courses starting in May, September and January each year.

Learn more about TRU Faculty of Education and Social Work programs

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