Part 5: Online Instructional Materials
In an online class, it’s not just about providing students with materials from other sources. You also need to think about how you are going to provide the content and guidance that you would normally provide in the classroom. Sometimes instructors believe that they can provide only the materials used in an in-person class and that’s good enough. You are more important to your students than that. Merely providing existing materials without including anything that you would have done in class belittles your role and what you have to offer. Imagine having an in-person class where the faculty member comes in and sits down and doesn’t say or do anything. Students could ask questions, but often they don’t know what the don’t know and what they should ask. They need your guidance and instruction to put the pieces together. They need you to fill in the gaps.
Creating content and instruction is not something that has to be overwhelming. Start small. Sharing your thoughts, analysis, examples, explanations, and perspectives provides instructor presence on a reasonable scale. When you identify a gap in your students’ understanding, instead of spending time down the black hole of YouTube looking for something someone else has made, do it yourself. You do it yourself in your in-person class all the time, so you know you can! There are several tools you can use ranging from a Canvas page or Word document to a short video recorded in Kaltura or Zoom, or even on your phone to an audio-only message to a “choose-your-own-path” interactive scenario.
Through it all, keep in mind that instructional materials are a means to the end of learning and not an end unto themselves. If your beautifully crafted PowerPoint presentation isn’t helping learners understand the material, try approaching it in a different way. This may mean explaining something from a different perspective, using different examples, talking through or visualizing something that was originally only in text, or writing out what you previously explained verbally.
You can create written materials a variety of formats from a longer textbook-style narrative, to a Frequently Asked Questions page, a glossary of terms you know your students’ struggle with, smaller bits of explanatory text filling in gaps left by other materials, alternative examples, and more.
As with content written by others, when you write your own materials you want to think about tone and reading level. Are you writing in 2nd person, using you and your? Are you writing in a conversational tone? Are you writing at an appropriate reading level for your students? If you aren’t sure, run part of it through a readability checker.
One way to start to overcome all of these issues is to try writing like you talk. If writing like that difficult for you, an easy way to get started is using speech to text. That’s an accessibility function available on your computer but you can also just start a new email on a smartphone and dictate using Google or Siri. This will give you a good draft of your thoughts which you can edit and refine.
Screencasts are where you record your computer screen as you are explaining what you are showing your students. While you most often see screencasts in technical tutorials, they can be effective in other was such as walking your students through your syllabus and Canvas site at the beginning of the semester or showing them how to use more complex web resources like data repositories,
When creating screencasts it’s very important to actually say what you are doing. Students watching a screencast on a smaller mobile device may not easily be able to see smaller details so say “and now I’m clicking on the ‘more information’ link at the top right” instead of “so I’m clicking here and . . . . ” If you have a student who needs accommodation for a visual disability, make sure to connect with Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center, as they may need audio descriptions of what is happening on the screen.
If you then want to edit your screencasts, you can download the Adobe Creative Cloud suite from IUWare to access Adobe Premiere Rush, a fairly easy to use video editing application which works well for short videos (<10 minutes). For a tutorial on Rush see Premiere Rush: The Basics by IU IT Training. If you are using a Windows 10 computer, you can use the built-in video editor tool found in the Photos app. If you are using a Mac, you can use iMovie.
Though podcasts have waned in popularity over the past years, some faculty prefer to talk to their students through audio only in a podcast/audiobook style. If you have a slide presentation without any real important visual elements, an audio-only version can be a good option, especially for students who prefer to listen while they drive, exercise, or do other activities that don’t allow for full visual attention.
Audio works best when it’s conversational and shows enthusiasm for what you’re saying. While writing a script is highly recommended, you want to be familiar enough with your script to be able to read it without sounding like you’re reading. One thing people don’t often consider when writing scripts the importance of varying sentence structure and avoiding overly complex sentences that don’t leave room for you to take a breath.
If you are writing a script like a journal article, keep these tips in mind:
- Use shorter sentences: Longer, more complex sentences are harder to follow when spoken so break them apart into shorter ones.
- Use everyday words, not academic ones: Replace words like “utilize,” “leverage,” and “delineate” with words like “use” and “describe”.
- Use contractions: If you write “You do not need to read chapter 3” you’ll probably say that when recording even though in any other circumstance you’d say “You don’t need to read chapter 3.” This ties directly back to being more conversational.
- Read your script out loud as you’re writing it: The easiest way to find things that sound weird is to say them out loud while really listening to what you’re saying.
Finally, while you may find it uncomfortable to listen to your own voice on a recording, it’s important to do it at least the first few times. You may not be consciously aware of verbal habits that may be distracting to a listener. Excessive umms, aahhs, and wells, as well as pens tapping, computer fans blowing, or HVAC noise that you’ve grown used to can become a focus for listeners, distracting them from the message you’re trying to convey.
While you can record audio directly using a smartphone or computer, if you are interested in doing any audio editing, Audiomass is a free, web-based tool with many useful functions. You can use it to remove sections, trim the beginning and end, reduce noice, speed up or slow down the audio without changing the pitch, level the volume if part of your audio is louder or quieter than the rest, among other options.