Writing an online class is akin to battling a weird beast. In many cases, you can slay this beast if you are more than fairly certain that you, and only you, will be teaching the course once it’s in place. In cases such as these, you can inject a bit of your own personality and viewpoint into the materials to make them more personable, more approachable for your students. After all, the best way to gain the trust of your audience is to come across as “human” in anything you put out there. This holds true in politics and branding, and it holds more truth in education. The problem is, in online education, the “human” is harder to find that it would be in a physical classroom. And this presents an ongoing challenge for online course authors, as well as the support faculty tasked with teaching their classes.
If your online course enjoys any sort of student feedback component—in other words, if your students expect critique from an expert (instructor, working professional, or any other actual human)—and is taught to more than 20 students at a time, chances are strong that you will not be the only person teaching your materials. This means you’ll need to be a bit more cautious in writing any lecture materials since your voice and the voice of those teaching the class will, more than likely, be very different. While this may not sound like much of a problem, it holds the potential to confuse your online students more than you think it should.
When students are lucky enough to find themselves studying within an online environment utilizing actual instructors (rather than peer-critique alone), care must be taken to assure the human voice of the lecture content doesn't overpower the human voice of the instructor. This is especially true when incorporating demonstration videos or other lecture content utilizing video or audio components. "The video didn’t say to do it that way” becomes a common hindrance to the authority of support faculty within their own classroom, as does the students' realization that the active instructor did not participate in the creation of the teaching materials. So it's important to be careful throughout the authoring process.
Minimizing your own voice, your own tone, within the online class materials goes a long way in helping your colleagues. It provides them the opportunity to share their own viewpoints on the materials, which helps them establish a far greater bond with the students.
life on the other side of the equation.
Recently, an online colleague mentioned reading an evaluation from one student expressing positive surprise that feedback and discussion comments were from an actual instructor, rather than generated by an AI within our LMS. In my own experiences as an online student, I frequently found myself wondering about the human-factor of online teaching. How involved were my instructors? Did they care that I was up at two and three in the morning, fighting fatigue and bad design decisions in an effort to grab their attention and praise? Did they actually look at my work? Or did they just glance at the submission in an attempt to “pass me through” or “weed me out”?
I had my fair share of all types of instructors during this journey, from the “can’t be bothered with answering questions” model to the (literally) “available all hours of the night to help you get through this” one. I remember each. I’m more grateful for those who were clearly engaged. But the ones I remember most were the ones who injected some sense of themselves into the class, speaking more loudly and more clearly than the written content could.
One was a bear to please. She demanded results beyond perfection at every stage, and I always died a little before opening her critiques for fear of the potential “this is all wrong” commentary. She was harsh, but she was always right. And she got beautiful results out of every student she encountered, more or less. But her harshness isn’t why I remember her. I remember her because she was the first to post audio critiques (everyone else marked up PDFs of our work), which meant I could actually hear her tone. Her voice made her human, which added a sense of context and weight to her comments.
Each Wednesday, I’d download her audio files, plug in my headphones, and listen to her discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each page in all submitted projects. She had a soothing voice that was only countered by the fact that she chewed gum while talking. Normally gum smacking drives me crazy, but in this case, it calmed me. It seemed as if she were in the room with me, talking to me. Teaching me. Her voice made me feel less alone in my studies. And to this day, every time I set type, I hear her gum smacking in the back of my head, right before she asks me “should you add a bit more tracking to that line of italic text?” or "are you sure Baskerville can be set that small?"
Other instructors became equally human as I advanced through the program. One instructor launched weekly video conferences where he’d gather all students from each of his online classes so we could meet as a class and gain the benefits of critiquing each others’ work in a “live” environment. Another would send emoticon messages via email and iChat to cheer us up at midterm. And one gave me his cell number when I asked a question he couldn’t answer easily via the text interface of our LMS. I happened to catch him after hours at SXSW drinking a Shiner. We bonded over the importance of a strong bock, following up with the importance of an equally strong visual system and the components needed to make one.
After each of these encounters with my “real” instructors, I felt stronger, more secure in my direction, and more mentally fueled to attack the learning materials. The injection of human interaction made each class feel more hybrid in nature, where a strong combination of online flexibility and face-to-face interaction could fuel a greater potential for my success as a student.
But, returning to the online class, these connections did not happen because of the existing online materials or structure. They happened in spite of them. So, like I said, writing an online class is akin to battling a weird beast. A many headed one, where each head must be appeased before real teaching can begin.
more hydra than hybrid.
In my current position, I oversee the development of and updates to our online class content. Sometimes I write the content. Other times our full-time faculty take on this task. But frequently we hire others to write it for us. And these hired authors tend to have a million questions. When they finally get around to asking how to write an online class, I always pause. I know they're looking for an easy, self-assuring response. They want answers like “think of it as a flipped classroom,” or “sometimes it helps to look at how hybrid teaching works,” or even “look at it from the perspective of the student—what would you want to get out of a class like this?”
But in reality, online classes are never this easy to define, much less build. Yes, these answers (and the subsequent questions they raise) can help you begin the task of developing online class materials. But they only point out a couple of the many snapping jaws you will encounter as you battle an online build.
Depending on the environment you find yourself working within, the ferocity of your own hydra will vary. It's up to you to ask the questions necessary to arm yourself for battle. Will you, the author, develop all content, including any audio or video materials, yourself? Or will you have a team to assist you? If you have a team, what are the actual responsibilities of each member? What LX technologies will you be working with? Will the materials live within a controlled LMS, or will they live out in the wild? And though there are many other issues to address beyond these, just who (or what) will be using your materials to teach the students is one you should keep in the forefront of your mind at all times. In other words, keep in mind whose “voice” you are actually crafting.
Given that many online classes, especially those within a university system, are created to permit and encourage the dissemination of consistent content across multiple sections of the same class, chances are strong that you will never be the sole instructor in a class authored by you. Instead, you may find other instructors of varying experience and expertise behind the podium presenting your lectures. Because the experience levels of each instructor may not be known while you’re writing, it tends to be safest to present the materials as concisely and completely as possible. This does two things: (1) it assures your instructors will understand the expectations of the class via the presented content, and (2) it eliminates potential for holes in the students’ educational experience, thus increasing their opportunity for success. To accomplish both of these effects, though, you’ll need to present the materials in as generic a tone as possible, while maintaining enough personality within the content to retain student interest.
How do we do this?
First, recognize who you are writing for. Yes, the students need to get a sense each course is written and taught by an actual person. But your online faculty should have a say in the content and tone as well. Talk to those who have taught the course before, if you can, and get their insights. What issues have they had with any existing materials? What student questions / concerns have they addressed behind the podium? What materials have they added to the lectures? Should this content become permanent? If so, how should it fold into the class structure? Where should it live?
If this is a new class, never taught within your curriculum before, talk with the faculty who have either taught related classes, or the faculty you think will most likely be tapped to teach this class upon completion. What do they think of the overall direction you’re taking? What insights can they provide?
Talk to the students. If you're rebuilding an existing online class, ask students what they felt was the strongest aspect of the materials. The weakest? Where did confusion lie in their experiences? If it’s a new class, ask what they’d hope to learn in a class such as this one. They may not know. But more often than not, they already have opinions.
Get in touch with any Instructional Designers assigned to the task. What technologies are they currently working with? What updates are they seeing on the horizon? Are there any new models out there that might help you tell the story of your content?
Avoid lecturing. Tell a story instead. Lessons are more approachable if we can picture ourselves in them. How can that lecture about design elements become a story about design ideas?
And leave room for many voices. Provide opportunities for your support faculty to add their own experience, opinions, and humanity, while still filling in enough information to assure the best chances of success for your students.
In other words, remember that, as you write that online class, it isn’t about what you or what you know. It’s about establishing trust between the materials and the students. And more often than not, that relationship will be fostered by another, living, human being. Give them the structure and support they need to build that relationship. But leave them ample room to speak confidently in their own classroom using their own voice.