Best Practices for Online Teaching: How to Structure an Online Curriculum and Keep Students Engaged

Best Practices for Online Teaching: How to Structure an Online Curriculum and Keep Students Engaged

Online education is not a new concept, but in today’s landscape, wherein many colleges and universities are ramping up online learning for programs that have traditionally been largely in person, it’s important to understand how to do it right.

American Sentinel University was founded in 2006 and offers online programs that are focused exclusively on healthcare. The university has been committed to creating innovative ways to help students succeed for more than three decades, and it is approved to operate in all 50 states, with a Nurse Practitioner master’s degree program that is approved in 43 states.

American Sentinel’s webinar on Best Practices in Online Education, recorded Jun. 19, 2020, addresses best practices for online teaching, online teaching fundamentals, how to keep students engaged in online learning (student engagement strategies), and more tips for online educators and administrators. The webinar’s expert panel includes:

  • Elaine Foster, Dean, Nursing and Healthcare Programs
  • Karen Whitham, Associate Dean, Nursing and Healthcare Programs
  • Lauren Stehling, Director, Nurse Practitioner Programs
  • Sarah Meeks, Chair, RN to BSN Program
  • Sarah Moore, Associate Professor
  • Brenda Homer, Chair, MSN Programs

Components Needed to Move from In-Person to Online Learning

Here are some of the key components necessary for an institution to put the pieces in place for online learning:

1. The Learning Management System (LMS)

The learning management system is the platform where all course content lives. It serves as the infrastructure to serve the needs of all of your learners as well as all instructors, professors and administrators. Ideally, it should be easy to use and scalable, and able to hold all course material, project assignments and plans for assessments that instructors will use to assess what learners accomplish during their time in classes.

There are many open-source examples of learning management systems, including the following:

  • Moodle
  • Canvas
  • Chamilo
  • Totara Learn
  • Forma

Most platforms have a variety of features to assist institutions with building content. You’ll be able to choose a user-friendly mobile version if that’s important to your students. Moodle, for example, which is the platform that American Sentinel University uses, has an interface that’s available on both desktop and mobile devices. Students work together in forums and on activities, and Moodle features a calendar for tracking all events, meetings and deadlines, and a file management system.

2. Course Material

In a regular classroom, course material might include reading assignments and printed or online textbooks. In the online classroom, course material might include these and lots of other things such as videos, audio files and discussion areas, where students can engage with one another. Community building is a big part of the online learning environment, wherein instructors facilitate discussions and interact with and guide students.

3. Assignments and Expected Outcomes

As in a typical classroom, it’s essential that online instructors set expectations for all assignments. In the learning management system, teachers do this by posting rubrics and directions as well as detailed directions that help students complete assignments independently and stay on track for course expectations.

3. Assessment

Learning management systems must incorporate assessments of students’ knowledge throughout each course that they take. Assessments typically include quizzes and more in-depth end-of-course assessments. Many systems embed comments into course work to lead students down different learning paths.

How to Keep Students Engaged in an Online Classroom

When creating learning opportunities, as an educator or facility, your students must be engaged in the courses. Participation must be mirrored by the instructor, to engage students. It’s important that instructors set expectations with students on when they can expect responses from them and how the instructors will interact with students throughout the course. They should address how students should be expected to complete courses and how to access all components of their courses.

An organized and appealing course structure also helps students connect with course content and interact more. If you’re an instructor, remember that an online course is different than a typical classroom. To create the best student experience, make sure to:

  • Offer timely and immediate feedback on students’ work.
  • Build a strong online community wherein students feel like they are interacting with their peers regularly.
  • Help students navigate courses with short videos.
  • Turn your lecture questions into asynchronous learning tools.
  • Use versatile tools that students can access anywhere like Google Docs and Prezi.
  • Be available to students to help promote, support and engage them.
  • When developing the outline of a course, incorporate your learning outcomes as your guide.

At American Sentinel University, we incorporate virtual clinical scenarios and virtual clinical simulations to engage nursing students in hands-on learning. Practice experiences are also important to ensure students practice what they learn and meet course objectives.

Using Technology to Stay Connected with Students

Technology is obviously a key part of the online learning experience. Talk with your IT professionals at your institution to gather ideas and see what is possible with the learning management system that you’re using. A few of the tools that are worth exploring include:

  • Screencastify
  • Visme
  • YouTube
  • iMovie (on iPhones) and Clips (on iPhones)

As for online testing, many learning management systems have their own testing capability built into the system. American Sentinel uses ProctorU, a proctoring service, but other options include ExamSoft, an assessment software, and Respondus, another online proctoring system.

When having students give presentations, there are many options, such as Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms, Snagit, VoiceThread and Prezi.

And how do online instructors communicate with students via synchronous learning? Zoom is an option that many are probably familiar with, but there is also Skype and Thinkific, which is great for educational presentations.

Many of the same strategies one would use in a classroom fit a virtual class environment. Zoom is a great way to put names to faces, make sure students are engaged and set the tone for engagement. There are many creative ways to keep students engaged as well, such as ice breaker videos during online lectures and presentations. Brief snippets of information are great. Keep things moving along.

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