3 tips and tricks for online distance learning

By: Sanne Mirck · 23 March 2017
Category: Distance learning

“What are the most important pitfalls when designing an online distance learning course?” A good question coming from a teacher of the online Master Food Technology from Wageningen University. And relevant for more teachers than just this one we thought! So we decided to answer this question in a blog post: the pitfalls positively formulated as 3 tips!

Wageningen University already has several years of experience teaching students from all over the world. Time to gather the experiences of students and teachers to see what we can learn about effective online teaching! The evaluation report will be available soon, but for now we’ve already selected three tips for designing an online distance learning course.

  1. One deadline a week

It is always a challenge to find the right ‘degree of freedom’. Students sometimes need a carrot or a stick. But you also want to give them room to plan their own work and take initiative. When teaching a distance learning course for the first time it can be quite hard to estimate the right balance.

What we have learned is that setting roughly one deadline a week is the most optimal for students. Every single student has a different study rhythm, caused by their geographic location and the fact that most distance learning students also have a (fulltime) job that takes up a sizeable amount of their time. By setting one deadline a week students are forced to prioritize their studies, but they can decide for themselves whether they study more during the week or in the weekend.

Oh, and don’t forget: since a deadline is a stick, you also need a carrot. Students who hand in work early should receive feedback first!

  1. Work in small groups

Group assignments are a lot of work for students. It’s not just the project itself that takes more time to complete than individual assignments – coordinating the group work (e.g. setting meetings, having brainstorms)  also costs a lot of extra time. Especially in a distance learning course, where students may be located in different time zones and have different study schedules, the coordination of group assignments is complicated.

This means that you should not create too many dependencies between students in your course. The problems related to collaboration grow exponentially when groups get bigger. This is why it’s best to keep groups small. Online students themselves prefer to work in couples or groups of 3 or 4 students – depending on the size of the assignment. It may help students plan their group work more effectively if you as a teacher stimulate students to assign explicit roles within the group (e.g. ‘chairman’, ‘notetaker’, ‘help seeker’, etc.) .

  1. Don’t replace a lecture by 10 knowledge clips

If you teach a similar course on campus it seems quite straightforward to chop up your lecture and make 10 knowledge clips out of it. For distance learning counts: Be selective! Even if it means killing your darlings. Really try to utilize the ‘added value’ of the knowledge clip. If most of the content is also presented in a book, it might be enough to record one knowledge clip per chapter. For example, to highlight the most important concepts or maybe to discuss the tricky details.

If you teach about your own research, it has added value that the students actually see you, and most importantly: see your enthusiasm!
If you want to show a complicated process or something very abstract, use a screen recording or infographic so the visuals foster student understanding. And last but not least: a recap video is a very nice way to give feedback to the students about the assignments they made, to summarize common misconceptions, and to share good examples.
Do you want to know more about different types of video? Read the blog The new knowledgde clip (is not a talking head).

All in all variety in learning material is key. So alternate texts and video’s and try to find the medium that best facilitates the students to achieve the learning outcome.

Do you have any tips on online teaching and learning yourself? Please share them with us and your colleagues in the comments below!




Sanne Mirck

Instructional designer

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