Phyllis Ingham, EdD, MLS(ASCP)CM, AHI(AMT), ASCLS-Georgia President

Photo credit: Paul Bulai, Unsplash

Coping with life as an educator during a global pandemic has reminded me of an expression, “iron sharpens iron.” “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17). Reflecting on that expression, I envision two iron rods rubbing together. As friction is created, so is the heat, and eventually a spark, then a flame, which if fanned, is not able to be contained. In my mind, I see this as exactly what happened to our higher education system almost overnight.

Our entire educational faculty roles were suddenly upended as a novel virus swiftly changed our daily lives and teaching delivery methods. We found ourselves anxiously asking questions such as: How am I able to teach my courses totally online? How can I use lab simulations for my students to develop competency-based skill sets? How can I make sure students are engaged and learning using the online platform? What are the current best practices being used in online education?

Moving from a face-to-face classroom to online pedagogy, while wondering if we could really make this work and enable our students to continue to learn in the middle of such a vast change in approach from our current teaching methodologies, certainly made us all feel as if we were plunged directly into the heat of the flame. But, from that flame an even greater spark did arise. Communities of educators from all across our nation immediately began to hold webinars and podcasts. As these connected communities grew immensely in number, best practices were shared by online experts in the various disciplines and we went to work. As a result of the “sharpening of iron,” we made it through the toughest of times because of our connections as humans as we navigated the unknowns together.

“Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision, and change.”
-Richard Branson

Lessons Learned: Start with the End

Honestly, as in all things in life, what works for some will not work for others, so keep that in mind as you begin to develop and adjust your online learning plans.

The starting place must, of course, be to develop engaging online content. For this first step you should take a look at Backward Design. Suppose for a moment you are going on a short trip. What is the first thing you do? For most of us, it would be to decide where we are going, or the destination. Then we make all the decisions as to our route to take, if we must stop overnight along the way, or what type of cuisine we would enjoy experiencing on our trip.
In preparing course content, we must take that same approach. We should first take a look at where we want to end. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Where do we want to go? (What are the goals for the course?)
  2. How will we know if we have arrived? (How do we measure student achievement?)
  3. What will we need to help us get there? (What will students need to be successful?)

Two books I highly recommend for learning more about backward design are Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe and Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses.

Making the Plan: Best Practice Tips

Next, you must learn and employ strategies which will help students learn in the online classroom. Pause for a moment and think about how you are able to get students to actively guide their own learning experience.

Let’s take a closer look at some strategies that experts say will work for your online courses:

  • As you develop course modules or lesson folders, create and personalize instructor content videos.
  • Humor does increase student interest (utilize memes, gifs, personal stories, catchy music, memorable quotes, or interesting videos).
  • Provide task lists for each module or lesson folder.
  • Schedule synchronous Office Hours, Pop-in Sessions, or Buddy Chats. Students need to know when you are available to them.
  • Create short instructor greeting videos for each module. Students need to see your face; human connection is extremely important.
  • Don’t create too many discussion boards. This causes frustration and stress for students.
  • Keep in touch with your students—send out short surveys and use small group conferencing (video conferencing tools).
  • Become the Zoom (or WebEx, etc.) expert! (This will take a lot of practice.)
  • Welcome students to class by name as they enter the virtual classroom. Direct dialogue leads to a positive rapport.
  • Begin class by asking, “How are you all doing?”
  • Before you begin the course work, talk about something personal, share a story.
  • When you use virtual sessions, try to allow in your course both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities and always record your sessions for students to re-watch, pause, take notes, etc.
  • Avoid student anxiety by allowing students to upload a profile photo so they are present via microphone for participation; video participation has been associated with increased anxiety. I personally like to see my students smiling faces but I let them know ahead of time which virtual sessions I expect them to be “live” present or when profile picture present is acceptable (we call those sessions your PJ Days).
  • Utilize virtual breakout rooms for interactive quizzes and student assessments.
  • Add in mindful moments—take short brain breaks to prevent student stress overload.
  • Keep it real!
End of Course Revelations

Once the course is over, as you know, the real work begins. Course evaluations are important. We must listen to student feedback, but you must now reflect on the course content, structure, and design, and ask yourself, “Did we reach our destination?” Sometimes that reflective evaluation may be answered with a NO. What’s next? Make changes! Keep doing what seemed to work and take out what did not work. And in the end, we move forward once again continuing to share our spark and create the flame of success.

  • Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Dipietro, M., Lovertt, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010) How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Blake, C. (2017, November 13). How online teachers can improve discussion boards [Blog Post].
  • Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R. (2016) The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. (2019) Small Teaching Online. San Francisco: Josey Bass.
  • Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.
  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd edition). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Development.

Phyllis Ingham is Clinical Laboratory Technology Program Director/Chair at West Georgia Technical College in Waco, Georgia.