Teaching online — start with one concept not the whole course

I read William Pannapacker’s essay “Online Learning: Reaching Out to the Skeptics,” on The Chronicle of Higher Education online and was reminded of a key aspect of making online learning work for faculty — starting with a bite-sized learning concept.

The meat of Pannapacker’s essay is the last half when he talks about steps faculty can take in creating online courses and what he is doing to create online content himself.

What happens to too many faculty is that they decide to go from face-to-face teaching to putting an entire course online. That’s a huge jump, and that approach encourages faculty to take what they have done in their face-to-face teaching and make that the content and approach for the online course.

Some online courses are video of the instructor teaching as if teaching in a regular classroom — and perhaps actually teaching a class and being recorded.

Some online courses are lesson after lesson of PowerPoint slides with a voice-over of the instructor.

Video and PowerPoint can be effective in an online course but neither should be THE way to teach an online course.

My first step in creating online material was taking one step — an ant step, so to speak.

I had asked instructor designer Judy Robinson to help me think about how to present a part of my course as online content.

She asked me to select something in the course that the students had difficulty with that might be taught more effecitvely using a different approach.

Preparing to conduct an interview is a challenging concept for my students. Most have been interviewed for a job or for a scholarship. But only a few have conducted an interview — the kind of interview they must do in Writing for Mass Communication. So preparing to conduct an interview became my focus.

We enlisted the help of Don Hall, a professor in UF’s Department of Entomology & Nematology. I had interviewed him in class to provide a sample interview for the students. He was almost as excited about the use of technology in teaching as he was about insects, especially ants. So he was interested in being a part of the project.

With photos, audio files and screen captures, I prepared a module on preparing for an interview. Judy helped me learn the basics of Flash, which is how I created the module.

The three of us were pleased with the results, and the students appreciated the opportunity to replay the module as they worked through the concepts.

Taking on that one piece of the course was a good way of seeing:

  • How a different approach to teaching and learning can be a better approach.
  • How much time is involved in creating online material.
  • What I could learn to create myself and what I needed instructional design and technical support for.


  1. I’m glad you’ve decided to take small steps into these waters. I’ve taken (/am currently taking) online classes, and they seem to be woefully lacking in substance. Remember to answer a discussion question once a week and take a few tests. I disappoint myself with having to waste my money and time (no matter how small an amount) just so I can tell myself I crossed another class off the list.

    You’re starting with supplemental material, and that’s really the way to go. Optional material for hammering home difficult points is the best place to start. FWIW, you have my support!


  2. Sounds like you made the decision to take online courses for the reasons that many do — you need/must take a course and taking the course online is the only way or the most convenient way.

    At UF, we have students living in town (and sometimes even living on campus) who would rather take an online course rather than have to attend a face-to-face class so they will have a more flexible schedule. Yikes.


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