What the coronavirus taught me about planning an online course

Katri Söder from TSL shares her thoughts and experiences on how you as an educator can tackle the challenge of transforming a course into an online version.

The course I was working on was called the Future of Global Interdependence and it was scheduled for the end of April. However, just before the last meeting, the Corona Pandemic forced to move the course online on a fast schedule. At first, I was horrified and thought that by no means I dare, and maybe not even want to build or run any online course. Then I decided to take courage, however, and now I’m glad about this decision. I learned a lot, and now I want to share the lessons I learned.

The technichal aspect
I noticed that building the course online wasn’t just a technical accomplishment. Technology actually played a rather small role alongside the fact that interaction, implementation methods, and also course evaluation had to be redesigned as the learning environment changed. After all, this should have been anticipated, because as educators we know that the objectives, the evaluation, the methods and the organization of the training, as well as the subject areas, are all related. However, building the online course was still so new to me that this came as a surprise.
Transferring a course online is not difficult on the Howspace platform used by TSL, but the planning should be done well. First, the goals pursued by the teaching have to be defined; what students should know after the course. This point in the plan remained the same even though the course was moved online. The other points had to be redefined, i.e. what learning experiences are needed to achieve the objectives, how these learning entities can be organized effectively, and how it can be concluded that these goals are achieved; these all had to be done a little differently online than we would have done face to face.

The interaction and working in groups
I was quite nervous in advance about how to create genuine interaction within the online course, as my own experiences of online learning have been quite bad in this regard. We took plenty of time for the joint kick-off meeting so that we had time to go through the rules of the course and familiarize the students with the learning environment and its activities. We divided the students into smaller learning groups and together we went through the learning objectives.
Part of the course work took place in small groups. The group must have a common task and enough time to get to know each other, so that the random group develops into a goal-oriented group. In our course, groups had their own workspaces and a shared goal as well as a positive dependence on what other group members did. The debate-part of the course in particular seemed to create a positive spirit of competition, and it seemed like the groups wanted to put a lot of effort into preparation. I organized a mentoring meeting for each group, in preparation for both group assignments. Students said that the meetings were very useful for learning. I highly recommend such tutoring meetings for online courses, even though they are quite time-consuming.

Lessons learnt
When planning an online course, the same things should be considered as when planning training in general. A clear structuring of the teaching event, clearly stated expectations and a planned learning environment are also important goals online. Maximizing the time spent on actual teaching and individual support works best, if you also use small group work, book tutoring meetings for the groups, and give feedback on students’ written assignments.
In this course, the diversity of methods was successful. The course used debate, preparation of a campaign plan in small groups, small group steering meetings, group-wide discussion and individual assignments, in which the answer was given together as a written essay and as a voice-essay. The orientation task used a puzzle-technique in which students taught each other the content they had learned. In the feedback from the students, many praised the diversity of the assignments

The online course should also take into account that the learning environment is built in such a way that students know where the documents can be found and where their assignments were to be placed. The course schedule and deadlines must be available to students online. Online materials must be technically functional and easily accessible. The division of labor between teachers should be clear, and in case of technical problems, it would always be good to have another teacher or online tutor involved. If possible, the learning environment should be chosen on the basis of your goals.

Katri Söder
Työväen Sivistysliitto TSL ry.

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