Stepping into the 21st century, the concept of online learning has been embraced by many higher education institutes.

But have the educators responsible for delivering learning through this new methodology embraced the new paradigm of two-way communications equally as enthusiastically? Here are our 5 top tips on how you can stand out from the crowd and manage your online student cohorts beautifully.


Make sure you have engaging & varied course content

In the past, online course content often consisted of simply loading up text files into a learning management system. In today’s online learning environment, savvy students demand multi-sensory experiences to keep them engaged and actively learning. It’s essential that you make sure your course content is varied, and that it includes dynamic text with links, images, short videos, discussion boards, online forums and asynchronous sessions. In a 24/7 world, that means your course sessions should be available to any of your students, at any time of the day, night or timezone that suits their study schedule.

It’s also important to ensure that online learning is scaffolded through continual activities and self-assessment tasks (such as quizzes) throughout the course as part of its content, to support participants’ progressive learning.


Understand the limitations of online delivery communication

One of the challenges of online learning is that there is limited verbal communication. To counter this, course content needs to include examples, case studies or stories that bring the lessons to life and which lecturers may normally add informally to their F2F presentations in a lecture theatre. Understanding the need to communicate more explicitly online (spelling out what is usually communicated implicitly in a face-to-face situation) will help you assist participants understand not only how gained knowledge can be applied, but also the expectations of the online course. Additionally, having course sessions, discussions and forums available in real-time (asynchronous to the student’s situation and timezone) provides an important opportunity for the student cohort to communicate with you and each other, when it suits them.


Be really clear

We mentioned this as part of #2, but we’re going to make this really REALLY clear. Online learning has limited opportunities for verbal communication, and verbal communication in a usual classroom situation offers lecturers the ability to transmit a lot of implicit information through non-verbal clues and hints. In an online learning situation, don’t just rely on handing out (or posting) written information in a similar format as you do with your F2F classes and assuming your online students have understood it both explicitly and implicitly. If you want them to understand something or take a particular action, s.p.e.l.l  i.t  o.u.t. Ensure clarity at all times, ask for feedback. That’s what the discussion forum is for. It’s also advisable to have your written course materials, assessments and course instructions peer-reviewed for a sanity check, and to make sure everything is unambiguous and clear to participants.


Support your students when they need it

Delivering course sessions in real-time has massive advantages, with one key drawback. Sometimes student cohorts are not all in direct contact with their lecturers, support admin staff or peers during the course all at the same time. They might be working on assessments at night, on weekends or in completely different timezones and require support. A key recommendation is to have an after hours support system in place to assist students, but here’s also where the discussion board and forums come into play, where students can post queries for everyone in the cohort to see. Have a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section for common questions and issues, and you may even find that some answers or advice comes direct from another student before education staff can respond more formally.


The water cooler factor

There’s limited social integration in an online course, as participants are relatively isolated from their peers and don’t have the opportunities to chat informally as they would in a F2F classroom situation. Known as ‘the water cooler factor’, this is also how many students pick up on implicit course information from the lecturer through their peers. You need to provide them with a water cooler to chat to each other and engage with the course material. That’s your discussion board and forums. They’re mentioned in every one of our 5 Golden Rules for Managing Online Student Cohorts and there’s a reason for that. In comparison to a classroom where participants can engage with peers and the lecturer, an online environment has to actively provide engagement opportunities. Social integration is a key student retention factor, so opportunities for engagement with peers and lecturers should be maximised in the online learning environment, and one of your key roles as an online course facilitator is to manage those discussion boards and forums with precision, passion and flair.


You’re the glue that helps makes the magic happen. Constant communication from you as the course facilitator and lecturer, and constant encouragement to engage with peers in the student cohort will make your online course stand out from the rest. And keep your students coming back for more.


Authentic Two-Way Engagement in the Delivery of Online Learning


The subject Online Academic Practice forms part of HELI’s Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Academic Practice. This subject is designed for tertiary educators to help them understand how to manage the online teaching and learning environment successfully. With subject facilitator Dr Steffen Zorn, you will learn best-practices for managing online student cohorts, understand what’s involved in the transition from F2F teaching to the digital campus, and also develop online delivery models for your education enterprise.