Six Tips to Maximizing the Virtual Learning Environment

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 11.35.50 AMMore colleges and universities are moving to online education, blending the online and offline experience or offering complete online classes for their students.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are becoming popular and the class sizes are enormous. Technology is driving the changes we see today.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching in both the physical and the virtual classroom environment. From the time I started with the Global Business Management (GBM) Department at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), to the courses I teach today at NYU, UMASS at Amherst and Rutgers University, I’ve learned a few best practices to enhance the virtual classroom. My students have ultimately been my guinea pigs over the past several years and they are the best gauge of what works and what doesn’t, when it comes to online learning.

So whether you’re a professor or a student, and you’re interested in maximizing the time you’re “in” school, here are my best practice tips (note: these tips do not apply to MOOC size classes) for deeper in engagement when you physically can’t meet face-to-face every week:

  1. Use Welcome Videos Every Week.  I’ve been told by at least 75% of my students in each of my online classes that the Welcome Videos make them feel more comfortable and connected to the class each week. I plan these videos in advance and they are not only meant to create a warm, friendly “classroom” atmosphere, but also serve the purpose of weekly expectations.  Each week our online classes are different, so the ability to let students know how they will be participating, what assignments are due and how they can find you if they need extra help, is extremely effective.  I even let my students know if I’m traveling on a certain day, or if I have a day of back-to-back meetings.  This way they know that it will take me a little time to get through emails and to answer their question.  The videos are a great way to keep students on the right track as activities increase throughout the semester.
  2. Hold Virtual Classes Every Couple of Weeks.  When your class is on Blackboard or eCollege, for example, you should take the time to participate with the students in the discussions forums. However, the ability to hold virtual classes allows your students to receive some of the face-to-face time they would receive in the physical classroom. My virtual classes are not mandatory, because online classes attract students from different areas and also schedules are extremely tough to coordinate. My UMASS at Amherst Social Media and Public Relations Strategy class just had its first Google+ hangout this semester. I had several students join me to go over some of the basics of public relations, and to discuss their semester assignments.  Not everyone needed the PR 101 tutorial or had questions about their projects.  So, only the students who needed a little extra attention showed up.  Overall the experience was really good. Technology can be a challenge, so I always try to leave some extra time to work out the technical kinks.
  3. Use The Discussion Forum So Everyone Can Learn. In many cases, you may pose questions in the discussion forums related to weekly topics.  The students will answer your questions and you can also jump in with your own insights. However, one of my favorite exercises is having the students become “Tech Testers” by allowing them to teach their classmates about the latest social media platforms, resources and applications.  There are so many different areas to Tech Test, including social media monitoring, influencer tools, blog platforms, social media releases, blog ratings and rankings, etc. I select one platform or tool per student and ask each person to role up his/her sleeves to evaluate these tools. The students all work through a series of questions. Instead of sending me their responses, they share their answers in the discussion forum where everyone can review and ask additional questions, or comment on each other’s evaluations.  This type of exercise is an excellent way to have the entire class experience and learn about a number of different tools at once.
  4. Check In With The Class by Mid-Week.  By Wednesday of each week, I usually have questions from students who may need additional clarification on assignments or activities. Similar to any group you work with, if one person has a question, then there may be more people with the same question.  I always use my responses as an opportunity to educate everyone.  If a question comes in through the platform messaging system, I will send an announcement to the entire class answering the question, for everyone to review. For instance, if one student asks for project examples, I will share examples with the whole class.  The approach heightens the sharing process and allows the entire class to learn at the same time.
  5. Make Yourself Available To Your Students.  If you’re going to teach then you have to be ready to offer your students extra help, if they need it.  Some professors set virtual office hours or you can let students know when you are available by telephone.  Because my schedule usually changes from week to week, I just coordinate with students individually to book some one-on-one time. Many of my students also know that they can always find me on Twitter. So, if they have questions, or if they want to coordinate a time to Skype, then Twitter is a place for them to get my attention.
  6. Use Twitter to Keep the Class Connected.  For every class, virtual or physical, I have found tremendous success with Twitter through the use of a class hashtag.  Our classroom hashtag is always active and students are very excited to share the work they are doing as well as the interesting articles and blogs that they find during the semester. I require my students to set up a Twitter profile and to tweet 50 times during the semester. They are also required to follow 50 influencers. At first they are slightly apprehensive, especially if they are new to Twitter. However, by the end of class, many of them continue to tweet me and a classroom connection turns into the long- term relationship.  Twitter keeps us interested and connected, even if our conversations are only 140 characters or less.

With all of the discussions surrounding colleges and universities blending courses between the physical and the virtual environment, or moving classes completely online, it’s so important to focus on increasing the connection and engagement with students so you can all learn more. I really enjoy being in the physical classroom. However, with new teaching formats, the above tips really help me to feel more closely connected to my students.  What’s your experience in the online classroom and what are some of the best practices you’ve experienced?