Ways to Improve an Online Graduate Classroom Experience

Allen Baragar
Allen Baragar
BBA, Mgmt. of Info. Systems; pursuing an M.Ed in Instructional Technology, University of St. Thomas, TX
Young man sitting at a desk writing in a notebook with a laptop in front of him.

As a student whose education has covered decades, I have witnessed numerous changes in education and the methods of delivering it. I recall professors using transparencies, moving from chalk boards to white boards to smart boards. I remember the first non-traditional courses where the students would spend hours in the library basement watching prerecorded video lectures. I am currently a full-time graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in education and have not stepped into a classroom for a single lecture.

As an assistant professor for a small college with a majority of the students being non-traditional, I am tasked with designing online course material so that our students may fit our classes into their work/family/life schedules.

How to Prep Students for Online Courses
When deciding to pursue my graduate work, online was essentially my only choice due to my work schedule, my family life, and my geographic location to any school that offers master’s programs in education. A future student who is choosing to take graduate courses online must examine their personal skills, especially in terms of time management. The courses can be structured in such a fashion where the student has to be online at a particular time to meet with their cohorts or with the professor. The prospective student may find that this is not the case. They will have to govern their own time, log into the Learning Management System (LMS) multiple times a week for as few as five minutes and up to over an hour. The student must keep up with the assignments that are due on a weekly basis. Due to the level of research needed for completion, students who wait until the night the assignment is due will have difficulty finishing the work and staying up-to-date with the course.

The non-traditional student – the online student – who might be used to seeing the same students in class after class will have to change the way that they network with others. With an online course or degree, the likelihood that several members of your cohorts are not in the same geographical region is high. They will have change their communication methods and adjust to working with other students virtually.

If the course is designed properly, the students will form groups within the cohort, and these students will become the ones that the other students will lean on when help is needed. In my work as a graduate student, I have connected with two other graduate students that I know I can count on anytime I need assistance. Even if they are not in my group for a particular course, I can reach out to them for information and guidance, and they do the same with me.

Incorporating High-Impact Teaching Practices Online
The primary reasons for obtaining a graduate degree are usually for personal growth or career advancement. With that advancement would come more responsibility. The student could find themselves responsible for leading innovative projects or assigned as a team leader or lead teacher. One tool that most graduate students will able to add to their repertoire is project-based learning (PBL). I have completed several courses in my graduate program and each one of them had a facet of PBL to them. As a graduate of the program, the student will be equipped to leverage the aspects of PBL in their job and the new responsibilities. With this learning method, the student will be required to build their research, critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills.

The student will learn how to communicate and manage effectively using technology as a tool. This learning is accelerated and raised to a new bar due to the fact that students of an online program are in that program to facilitate their education without having to meet at a physical location. These new skills are directly transferable to most occupations.

Foster Connections
As the designer of online course material, I have researched, read, and participated in research on how to make the online class seem less robotic and more personal. It is important that the professor/instructor remember that their students are human and still require a personal touch. It is easy for a professor to fall into a false belief that because they are not seeing their students face-to-face on a weekly basis, the students do not require the same personal interaction that they would receive in those traditional lecture sessions. I have been subjected to professors that were so hands-off they would take over a week to respond to a message, they did not actively participate in the online discussion board, and did not provide timely feedback on assignments. This left myself and my cohorts feeling stranded. Within my online course, my students are required to post an introduction video and comment on other students’ video posts. One of my professors required us to post a weekly video journal to which she would post a video reply. This removed the invisible barrier of not being able to interact directly with her. During another course, our PBL project required us to have a video meeting once a week in order to move beyond the sterile feeling of sending email communications and updating spreadsheets.

When considering whether to either participate in or administer an online course, both the student and the instructor need to take an inventory of their skills and determination. Online courses present challenges for both sides and those challenges need to be considered before moving forward.

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