Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Simple First Step To Becoming a Better Online Instructor





 
Becoming a more effective online instructor can be a daunting objective, especially for faculty who feel dazed and confused about today's technological landscape.  How does one take the first step and where does one begin?  I have one strategy to share that I think is manageable and certainly would work for any instructor teaching any discipline.

Two Key Characteristics for Effective Online Teaching
A critical characteristic of an effective online instructor is communicating clear expectations.  Another key objective is fostering a strong social presence in the online environment, which increases the important student-instructor relationship in the distance learning environment.  Audio and video technologies are the golden ticket for delivering rich social presence but they can also involve steep learning curves to learn new technologies.  The practical tip shared here will assist you with both of these objectives.

The Transition to Online
Effective communication can start to erode in the online environment because when faculty teach online is they are not typically empowered with a toolkit that allows them to transfer their full spectrum of face-to-face communications to the online environment.  For example, when you are in a class in front of students on the first day of class you likely spend time reviewing the major points of your course syllabus with them -- chances are you don't say, "Download the syllabus from the course site tonight.  OK, let's get started with our first lecture."  You know how critical that syllabus is.  You know your students' success largely hinges upon the criteria and requirements you have outlined in that syllabus, right?  So you take the time, not to read it to them, but to summarize important points on each page.  In fact, you probably do this with every major document you share with your students in class -- the assignment document that explains the criteria for the course research project, the exam details, the group project, etc.

When you teach the same class online, chances are you probably summarize these main overview points in text in your course management system near the link students click to download the document.  What your students are missing in this approach is YOU -- your vocal intonations that stress the importance of key points and a sense of who you are, your interest in your topic, your passion for teaching, or whatever unique quality is that you bring to your class. 

VoiceThread: Simple, Personalized Voice or Video Overviews of Your Documents
So, I am proposing a simple application of a web-based tool called VoiceThread that empowers you, as an online instructor, to simply upload your existing documents (.doc or .PDF ... but VoiceThread also supports image files like .png and .jpg, .ppt files, and video files too!) and record voice or webcam comments on each slide (simply by clicking "comment").  VoiceThread even provides the option to narrate or "Doodle" on any slide with your mouse, allowing you to circle and point out important areas of a page to your students.  The VoiceThread can be embedded directly in your course management system after it has been created so it will appear to your students alongside the link to download the document.  Click here to view a video demonstrating how to embed a VoiceThread in Blackboard.

The sample VoiceThread embedded at the top of this post shows one that I made by uploading a PDF of my course syllabus into my VoiceThread account (log in and click on the Create tab at the top of the page to get started).  For added help, you are invited to download my guide, "How to Create a VoiceThread," which walks you through the creation process and explains how to select from VoiceThread's privacy options: secure, semi-private, and public. 

If you listen to my comments at the start, you'll see that I use this in my online class not only to introduce my syllabus to my students but also to introduce VoiceThread to my students. I use VoiceThread nearly every week for a variety of activities and this first exposure to VoiceThread is merely an opportunity for students to be introduced to the interface in a non-threatening way.  They do not need to leave a comment; however, VoiceThread opens the door for students to comment (if I choose to enable the "comment" feature).  And this is another benefit of this strategy.  Not only are your students able to listen to your personalized overview of your syllabus but they can also leave a comment (in voice, video or text) on any slide.  This is the equivalent of an asynchronous or time-shifted raising of a hand in a classroom.

By the way, if you are new to VoiceThread, you can create an account for free and that free account will allow you to create up to three VoiceThreads which is enough to learn how to use the tool and assess its effectiveness for your class.  This application of VoiceThread is just a taste of its full potential; however. VoiceThread full range of possibilities are not explored until you begin crafting participatory learning experiences with your students and consider having your students create their own VoiceThreads to demonstrate key course proficiencies.

Meeting Diverse Student Needs
Finally, students would have the option to access any VoiceThread you create through any web browser or they could access/comment on it with the free VoiceThread mobile app (currently supports iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch...Android coming soon). Students who are blind and rely upon full screen readers would access the VoiceThread through VoiceThread Universal (an html version of VoiceThread).  The one important accommodation I have built into the development of this VoiceThread is the transcriptioning of my voice comments so they are accessible to students who are hearing impaired.  I have done this by using VoiceThread's text comment feature.  I have also set up an alternative VoiceThread identity which I toggle to before posting the transcript of my audio comment.  This creates a visual marker to students who may need or prefer the text option. 

Keep Learning...
If you'd like to learn more about teaching with VoiceThread, join me for my free monthly VoiceThread webinar series.  Click here to read about the next webinar and view archives of past events.
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