Best Practices for Online Teaching from Brown University

Interested in teaching fully online or hybrid courses?  Or maybe just a unit online–or even one single class period?

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Check out these “Best Practices for Teaching Online” from Brown University.

If you work at a school which doesn’t have any instructional designers on staff, don’t despair.  Look around!  Who on campus can help you combine your expertise in content with learning theories, web tools, and a variety of technology-based practices?  Those are the folks you want to connect with.

Great Tips for Making Your Moodle Courses More Pleasing for You and for Students

two people communicating  Though this article is dated 2012, the design tips and tricks included all still apply.

It would be an understatement for me to say these ideas changed my Moodle courses.  With them, I transformed my courses completely.   Most notably, I learned how to avoid the scroll of death.

I mean, admit it, when you face a web page that is mostly text for screen after screen after screen–how are you likely to react?  Our students react the same way.

This article by Janetta Garton includes many gems.  For starters this mini-lesson on design:

A good user interface has:clarity (no manual required),concision (concise and clear),familiarity (users recognize elements),responsiveness (clicks lead to speedy responses),consistency (the interface is consistent throughout all areas),aesthetics (attractive),efficiency(users get where they need in a few clicks), and forgiveness (strategies to remedy user mis-clicks, “Are you sure you want to delete this?”).
Her tips include using books, lessons, labels, inserting tables, and more–all to help you organize and “chunk” information so that it makes better sense for your students.
A well-designed Moodle site is just one crucial part of a well-designed learning experience.


Hacking Engagement Podcast: Engagement and Eureka Moments

podcast logoPodcaster James Sturtevant interviews teacher and author Norman Eng about the differences between teaching K-12, with an emphasis on the student experience, and teaching college, with an emphasis on covering content.  This is episode 50 of “Hacking Engagement.”

This 44-minute podcast goes straight at the experience of that dreadful realization that students are not connecting with the teacher or the material.

The episode provides a lot to think about.  Why do some teachers have a strong ability to monitor the energy in the room?  How do they pair this sort of awareness with teaching techniques?   What are some of the biggest eureka moments in teaching?  What can we learn from the research behind the TED talk format?  Are in-class presentations just a waste of time?

The episode provides a variety of specific techniques to try out in class, including at least one active learning “template” any of us can try in class right away.


Simple Video Responses to Content

When I talk to folks about using video for projects in classes, often people say they’d like to do it, but it just seems like so much work!  Cameras and microphones and editing software and uploading and on and on…

antique movie camera

True.  Sort of.  It depends.

Video projects can be advanced and require all that work.  But using video in a class doesn’t have to require a big production!

Or they can be more simple, a whole lot easier to manage, and still bring a liveliness to the classroom as students explore the difference between how words and images work together and how written words work on a page.

Here’s an example most of us with students of high school age and older can try:  ask students to film a one-take response, under sixty seconds, to something they have learned recently in class.  No polishing or editing.  Just respond to the question or prompt and post the video to share with the teacher or with the entire class.

Most students can do this quickly and easily on their smart phones.  These can be uploaded to Dropbox or YouTube or a variety of other places.  Trust me, they know how to do this.

I prefer having students upload them to their “.edu” Google Drives and then sharing the link with just me or the class, either via email or on our LMS.  This allows for easier privacy and keeps my LMS from becoming bloated with video files.

If you use response papers in your course, why not switch a few of them out with these simple videos?  And then, add a cognitive twist by having students talk about their experiences filming versus writing.  Which do they like better and why?  Talk to them about their performance in each area–which assignment produces stronger content?  Higher student satisfaction?  And why?

Together you can learn a lot that will help you think about teaching in your future and will help them think about effective communication in their futures.

Guidelines for Faculty Progression in Using Moodle

If you are a faculty member using the Moodle learning management system, you might find this guide for skill acquisition useful.

I got it this summer when I completed the Teaching with Moodle 3.3 MOOC.  I recommend checking out this Moodle MOOC, which you can find on

learn moodle logo

Progression in using Moodle tools

Moodle’s founder and Lead developer, Martin Dougiamas, has written about how he sees the typical progression a teacher might go through as they learn to use the Moodle tools. His list is reproduced below. Where would you like to be?

Moodle needs to be flexible to cater for a wide variety of needs while remaining simple enough for ordinary teachers to start making good use of the power of the internet for community building and collaborative learning. My hope is that Moodle can be seen as a toolbox where they can start simply and naturally, and then progress to more and more advanced community facilitation over time. Ultimately, we’d like to see teachers being involved with and supported by a community of their peers.

Let’s look at a typical progression that a teacher might go through as they learn to use the Moodle tools:

  1. Putting up the handouts (Resources, SCORM)
  2. Providing a passive Forum (unfacilitated)
  3. Using Quizzes and Assignments (less management)
  4. Using the Wiki, Glossary and Database tools (interactive content)
  5. Facilitate discussions in Forums, asking questions, guiding
  6. Combining activities into sequences, where results feed later activities
  7. Introduce external activities and games (internet resources)
  8. Using the Survey module to study and reflect on course activity
  9. Using peer-review modules like Workshop, giving students more control over grading and even structuring the course in some ways
  10. Conducting active research on oneself, sharing ideas in a community of peers

Source: Moodle Pedagogy (opens in a new window)

Food For Thought: Evolve or Die

dinosaur with iphone comic
E Trembley

Evolve or die.

That’s kind of a scary statement, even for me, and I love innovation and change.  Because this statement makes the stakes seem, well, remarkably high.I share here excerpts from an excellent essay, “Active Learning:  Interaction, Diversity, and Evolution in Online Learning,” by John Vivolo.

Hype?  Or real risk?I share here excerpts from an excellent essay, “Active Learning:  Interaction, Diversity, and Evolution in Online Learning,” by John Vivolo.

I share here excerpts from an excellent essay, “Active Learning:

Interaction, Diversity, and Evolution in Online Learning,” by John Vivolo.

I think it might spark more interesting thinking about online learning in the traditional liberal arts environment and what that stakes are for us into the future.

Evolving from passive learning in many online programs, faculty are recognizing the need to introduce active and engaging course activities, aligned with student cognitive learning processes that give students opportunities for creative participation as well as enjoyment.

The broadly accepted notion that online learning is passive and impersonal may have been true in the early stages of this sort of education, but with Web 2.0 and other innovations, it doesn’t need to be so.  And now, even bigger schools are seeing the need to do online what we in the liberal arts really focus on:  engagement!  We are uniquely poised to bring our strengths to the online teaching world.

Next-generation learners no longer view technology as a luxury, but have adopted it as a necessity.

I think many of us “older” folks may not believe that statement yet, as for us, technology has always been more of a luxury.  A better way of doing things, perhaps, but not a necessity.  Our students do not think the same way.

The heart of active learning requires a push-and-pull balance of interactive and active, asynchronous and synchronous content and communication methods.  Expectations are high, and higher education must meet that challenge.  Evolve or die (21).

How can each of us meet the challenging expectation of our students, whether teaching on the ground, hybrid, or fully online, and integrate technology in meaningful ways into our teaching and learning?

Why should we?


Vivolo, John.  “Active Learning:  Interaction, Diversity, and Evolution in Online Learning.”  Going Online:  Perspectives on Digital Learning.  Robert Ubell, Editor.  New York:  Routledge, 2017.  18-32.

Using Google Sheets and StoryMap JS Together

Google Sheets icon

I’ve talked about the wonderful tools associated with Google Drive before, and I’ve mention StoryMaps JS, which many colleagues and students have recommended to me, but which I haven’t tried out myself yet. Thanks to this great article on Free Technology 4 Teachers, I’m excited to give it a try soon!

In this article Richard Byrne provides quick summaries and clear how-to videos about integrating Google sheets and StoryMaps JS to create multimedia timelines and to map spreadsheet data.

What an interesting way to create online lessons for students!  Or even better, to have students create projects that involve plotting information on a map or timeline.

New Academic Year, New Ideas About Teaching and Learning

The truth is that being a student in a student-centered classroom is hard and some students just don’t want to work that hard.

–Caitlin Tucker

That quote really caught my attention.  I teach creative writing and most of my class sessions are based on active work with the material on the syllabus, so I know how hard my students work in my student-centered classroom.  And how hard I work as well.

Young Students in an early 20th century classroomDesigning a course so that students can acquire new knowledge and run with it, then coaching them as they struggle, explore, stumble, succeed, and look for new ways to go–for me, it is harder than teacher-centered methods.  And a lot more humbling.

But when I talk to people about teacher versus student focus in course design and delivery, I often encounter the notion (usually accompanied with a barely contained smile) that a student-centered course is somehow, well, fun, and therefore lacks rigor.

And besides, a lot of students just don’t like it.  So why put in all the work to redesign courses?

Author Caitlin Tucker puts it right out there:  some students don’t like active learning situations because it’s hard. A lot harder than the conditioning they’ve received in many (most?) of their educational experiences where the teacher is the fount of knowledge which they must absorb and repeat.

Author Caitlin Tucker cites this Forbes article, “Why Soft Skills Matter and the Top Three You Need,” to bolster her argument that traditional notions of teaching and learning–held by many administrators, teachers, and students–are often not the best ways of educating students for successful and meaningful lives.

So as I enter this school year, I intend to speak directly with my students about how I have designed my classes and why.  How these courses might ask different things of them, things outside of their comfort zone.  How I believe that this sort of design will serve them far beyond college, for the rest of their lives, no matter what they wind up doing.

Tucker is an international trainer, a Sonoma County Teacher of the Year, a well-known speaker at EdTech, and  Google Certified Innovator.  You can read her entire blog post on this topic here.