Tips for Making Online College Courses Effective and Meaningful

Going to college is life-changing. It’s a time when new relationships are created that last a lifetime. It’s when young minds discover what excites them and what doesn’t. It’s a time when new ideas expand students’ worldviews. Ideals are shaped. These powerful outcomes from a college education are being challenged. Unfortunately, COVID is changing everything. The college experience is now mostly an online experience.

Over 26,000 COVID-19 cases have been detected in U.S. colleges and universities. According to the New York Times, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and even Notre Dame have sent students home or paused in-person classes. COVID outbreaks on the campuses are to blame.

What happened at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame are two examples revealing it’s too early to resume on-campus instruction. Instructors have been and are currently learning how to adjust their courses to be effective and meaningful online.

Tips for Adapting Your Course to Be Online

Your course is more than a video session. When adapting your course to be delivered online, the focus needs to be on the experience. So, too, does applying pedagogical methods to digital classes. With that in mind, here are some suggestions to diversify how you design and deliver your classes online.

Facilitate interactive discussions synchronously. The human attention span is short. Have students chat periodically throughout a live lecture. You can do this by prompting students to discuss a topic. This gives you a break from talking and engages the students in the material differently.

Plan asynchronous assignments: group assignments, discussion groups, projects. Adults like choice. With asynchronous assignments, you give students the flexibility when they meet online or give feedback on a group assignment. A virtual work platform, like Bluescape, allows students to provide feedback on the group’s assignment or review the group chat logs.

Integrate discussion starters to help students get to know one another: sports, music, shows to watch, goals, for example. The in-person experience is hard to replicate in an online course. It is still essential to integrate throughout the course discussion starters, or icebreakers. Don’t use them only on the first day of the class. Weave these discussions throughout the course. It makes the experience less rigid and encourages students to connect.

Plan smaller assignments to help students keep up with the course work. This is important given the many added variables students have to juggle: attending class online, managing at home tech constraints, COVID, homeschooling kids, caring for an elderly parent, working.

Make expectations abundantly clear. In one study, students shared that they were less concerned about technology used for online classes. Use a shared workspace that displays the course rubric, expectations, and frequency for interacting with classmates online. They were more concerned about passing the class. So, make clear what your virtual office hours are and how to schedule them.

Show your humanity and connect. These times are tough for everyone. Show your human side and occasionally email students to let them know you’re thinking of them.

Discuss COVID and implications to the student and the teacher and what happens if someone tests positive. This also helps build trusting relationships with students. COVID is on everyone’s mind. Minimize as much concern as possible by assisting students to know where they can get information about the virus if they or a family member get sick. Even talking about the virus can help educate students and arm them with accurate information.

Help students connect with resources to help them with technology needs. Access to technology—hotspots and laptops, for example—is a problem for some students. Include in your course material resources to help students who may have technology needs.

Tap into resources that help you transition your course to be online: Instructional Design Emergency Response Network, a directory of online teaching tools, and plans to help colleges move classes online.

When teaching virtually, it’s important to counter the awkward digital interactions. An effective and meaningful online experience integrates instruction and human needs.

Share this article

About the Author

Shawn Murphy
Shawn Murphy
Director of Organizational Behavior, Bluescape
Shawn is our Director of Organizational Behavior and Workplace Trends. His second book, Work Tribes is out now. Shawn's first book, The Optimistic Workplace is out now. Inc. has listed him twice as one of the top leadership speakers in America.

Stay in the loop. Subscribe today!

Sign up for weekly email updates of our latest blog posts.