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5 Must-Have Elements for Every Online Class

5 Must-Have Elements for Every Online Class

Online Teacher of the Year Renee Citlau offers advice for taking K–12 learning virtual.

posted May 5, 2013

When 2013 Online Teacher of Year Renee Citlau moved to the classroom after previous careers in business and accounting, she was alarmed by what she encountered: Too many students were not engaged in their own educations; some struggled with even the most basic language skills. Surely the nation’s schools and teachers could do better.

Citlau enrolled in an online master’s program through Pepperdine University and began to consider the benefits of online education in K–12 classrooms. “I thought, this really has a lot of opportunities for our high school students,” she says. Buoyed by her own experiences, and with support from administrators at Cyprus High School in the Anaheim Union High School District, Citlau launched one of the school system’s first online courses.  

Five years later, the district boasts a full slate of curriculum-approved, teacher-generated online courses, with 23 optional classes scheduled for the 2013–2014 school year.

That success is just one of the reasons why iNACOL, a national nonprofit that supports the use of technology in U.S. schools, and the Southern Regional Education Board chose Citlau as their National Online Teacher of the Year.  

I was fortunate to catch up with Citlau while she was in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with education officials and representatives for learning management systems provider Blackboard, Inc. 

Itching to launch an online course at your school? Here are five steps the nation’s best online teacher says every program should take.

1. Get Organized. “You have to be very organized, and you need to have a good sense of course development and some training in that,” Citlau says. Make sure every online course is rooted soundly in the same pedagogy that drives the creation of your traditional brick-and-mortar courses. Employ the same tested elements of educational design and instruction that you would for any other program. Be sure each online course is engaging and relevant and has defined learning objectives. Develop relevant assessments designed to test student progress toward those objectives.

2. Build Community. “Student-to-student communities and teacher-to-student communities are vital for the online class and for learning to occur,” says Citlau. Online teachers need to develop strategies and tactics for connecting with students — many of whom they do not see face to face on a regular basis. Form online discussions and working groups that promote communication and address critical thinking skills. Citlau employs online discussion groups offered through the Haiku Learning Management System (LMS) and an educational content authoring program called SoftChalk to create custom content specifically for her students. 

3. Integrate and Collaborate. “Don’t have flat courses,” says Citlau. Organize your online class so that students work together and get to know one another. In her classes, Citlau encourages students to break out into study teams. Each team develops its own “teamwork agreement” using a customizable Google document, which Citlau says establishes “the importance of teamwork upfront.” Citalu also uses a public wiki that students can edit and add to collectively as the course progresses and private teacher-to-student learning journals that encourage students to reflect on their experiences and help her determine individual strengths and weaknesses. Just because you’re learning online does not mean you need to feel isolated, says Citlau. “My students have said, ‘The most important thing I’ve learned in the class is teamwork.’” 

4. Encourage Self-Assessment. Every course, whether online or in-person, needs to include some form of assessment to gauge student progress toward learning objectives. Traditional multiple-choice-type questions are one way to do this. But Citlau says she prefers more open-ended questions combined with introspective self-assessments. Her LMS also features a real-time survey tool that allows educators to quickly gauge whether students comprehend specific subjects or lessons. These tools often provide “a better picture of what students really know than traditional tests,” she says. The privacy of the online environment often encourages students to communicate more openly with instructors—something they might be less inclined to do in a classroom full of their peers.

5. Provide Professional Development. Online courses can be effective. But technology is a two-way street, says Citlau. Teachers need to understand and embrace all of the tools and resources available to help students use them for learning. That means working and evolving alongside the technology. “We’re never complacent with where we are,” says Citlau. “We’re reflecting and we’re modifying. It’s one thing to do it by yourself; it’s another to do it with people who are like-minded, who are reflective.” This is the best and only way to ensure collaboration, creativity and innovation throughout your online courses.

Have other ideas for developing a strong online course? Tell us in the Comments.

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