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This content was published: January 25, 2016. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Online course observations – a fresh perspective

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You’ve probably heard that part of the new contractual agreement includes an observation of an online course as well as a classroom teaching observation as part of the standard assessment cycle for those who teach in both modalities. There are major differences between observing classroom courses and online courses. We’re starting to look at ways to make the online course observation the most productive experience possible for all involved.

I’ve been doing some exploration on this topic. To start out, here are a few suggestions from a recent NW eLearn Conference presentation by Dr. Carey Schroyer, Associate Dean of Instruction, Edmonds Community College. Schroyer states that one of the main observation challenges facing department chairs and deans is giving feedback in the spirit intended. It can be helpful to reframe the conversation as a professional development opportunity with these desired outcomes.

  • Ensure the process is meaningful and informative for faculty and administration
  • Clearly outline expectations and ensure process transparency
  • Minimize the anxiety associated with observation
  • Encourage faculty participation in the process
  • Provide resources
  • Ensure continuous feedback about the process & the system

Digging deeper into a couple of these, Schroyer notes that it’s important to highlight the observation as an individualized opportunity for 1-1 professional development. The process needs to be collegial with plenty of faculty input, and it’s helpful to meet in person when possible. I think this is an essential component when feasible, to meet to view and discuss specific components of the course together.

One question to consider in a formal observation of an online course is the distinction between design elements, which might have been created by another course developer, and observable teaching behaviors. Dr. Thomas Tobin, Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, exemplifies this in his article “The Case of the Unevaluated Online Courses” (Distance Education Report, Nov. 1, 2015). Tobin explains, for example, that “lecturing” is considered an observable teaching practice in the classroom, whereas lecture notes would not be considered in an observation of online teaching, especially if another instructor designed the course. To further clarify the distinction, videos and podcasts included in the initial course design would not be considered when looking at “observable teaching behaviors.” However, videos or podcasts created by the instructor as part of the course delivery to further explain concepts as a response to student questions would be considered as an “observable teaching behavior.” On a related note, Tobin’s recent webinar “How You, Too, Can Observe & Evaluate Online Courses,” he shares a number of ideas about topics ranging from what is unique about online teaching to what are effective teaching behaviors to observe.

Sometime in the future you will be hearing more about tools designed to assist with observing online courses. There are various tools out there already. To produce a rubric or tool that meets PCC’s needs and culture, PCC will need to engage in efforts to refine what already exists through a process that includes all of the stakeholders. Any resulting tool would need to be flexible in terms of how a SAC might like to adapt it.

I’d like to close by saying that peer-to-peer sharing of a course with colleagues at PCC can also be an enlightening opportunity to share teaching strategies and receive useful feedback. I am always happy to help guide or coordinate these efforts, so please feel free to contact me if you might be interested in exploring this approach.

About Greg Kaminski

Online Learning: online course design consultant, coordinator of Online Faculty Mentors, Quality Matters facilitator, interactive teaching practices enthusiast. more »

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x by bryan 6 years ago

Dear Man with the Dashing Hat,

I look forward to hearing more from you about this!

Thank you for this blog piece. I found it informative.

x by Kathy Carrigan 6 years ago

Thanks Greg, we have benefited greatly from sharing shells across the district, albeit sometimes is challenging it always results in a better course for students.


x by kerry pataki 6 years ago

Essentially: the destructuring of structure?! I would particularly look at/for the presence and links of continuity (e.g. reply threads), weekly memos on the home page, summary responses and commentary for discussion exercises, promptness and personalized content in course online emails, individualized responses to all quizzes and exams in the space provided (takes time but is well worth it), options for retake flubs with definite time-frames; overall a humanized articulation about the use of time for exercises and due dates, ongoing during and throughout the course.