Saved by the Bell: How long should online classes last?

A big step in structuring online classes relates to the duration of the lectures and the discussion classes. For both, the type of material and sophistication of the students influences that length significantly. A graduate student will likely be able to follow a longer lecture than a fifth grader, for example.

online classes, time

Teachers can break up lectures into 15-20 minute chunks to increase convenience and keep students’ attention.

One of the most important distinctions to make, when putting together an online class, is between lecture time and class discussion time. A big advantage of online classes is that lecture time can be recorded in advance and included for students to watch at their convenience. In fact, teachers can even utilize lectures from other sources, if they feel the lectures adequately cover the topics.

Even given this flexibility, it can be challenging to determine the proper length of time for a lecture. Traditionally, lectures last about hour, at least in most high schools and universities. Some evidence suggests, however, that lectures broken up into chunks of about 15 – 20 minutes are easier for students to process.

Again, online education has a big advantage here. Teachers can break up their lectures into smaller chunks of time more easily than teachers in traditional lecture halls and classrooms. Students can watch the lectures at their own pace, taking as much time as they would like between portions of the lecture.

As for the discussion portion of the class, this can vary widely, depending on the topic material and personal preferences of the teachers and students. Generally, it is good to plan for 50 minutes to an hour, even if the official time for the class is shorter.This will give you more time to let the discussion grow organically.

The most important thing to remember in this process is to keep the focus on the students, creating as many opportunities as possible for the students to talk or otherwise be actively involved in the class.

Get Online and Stay Interactive: Media tools make interaction easy.

When venturing into the online classroom, many teachers worry that they will lose the personal interaction present in the traditional classroom setting.  There, students and teachers are face-to-face, which creates that old-school type of interaction called conversation. In many popular online learning management systems, that interaction changes to a written format, which allows students to continue making comments 24 hours a day. This flexibility is one the biggest selling points for online education.

online classes, interactivity, teaching online

Teachers can utilize video chats, virtual whiteboards, and forums to increase student interaction.

At the same time, the spontaneity of live class discussion can be lost. Students often learn more from those discussions with teachers and classmates than from their homework, reading, and problem sets. The slower format of class comment, and even live chat, which operates in real time through written formats, can dampen that discussion.

At Rukuku, we’ve tried to maintain all of these elements by offering a live video chat feature, as well as written chat and comment sections. We also include a virtual white board, which allows both teachers and students to write via iPads or on their computer screens. For example, a teacher could write a math problem on the white board and let the student solve it. Through all these features, online channels can actually strengthen interaction.

Strengthening that interaction takes more than technological tools, however. It takes time. This is one of the biggest surprises for many first-time online teachers. Because class discussion can continue 24 hours a day, teachers must commit to checking in on their classes and commenting often. For better or worse, most online students have come to expect prompt responses.

Toward that end, many online class services require teachers to respond to student comments within a certain time frame, usually 48 hours. Teachers that don’t have those requirements specifically should impose them on themselves. We all have emails from friends and family sitting in our inboxes, waiting for responses. Those responses usually don’t happen if they don’t happen quickly. If you are planning an online class, set a deadline at 12, 24, or at most 48 hours to respond to your students’ comments.

AND, in addition to that, schedule a video chat, just as you would in a traditional course. You may be able to include your lecture in recorded video form as preparation material, together with assigned reading. But make sure you schedule some time each week to lead a video chat. It will add spontaneity and virtual face time, while bringing your students closer to you and to each other.

Multimedia Magic in Online Education

One of the most common themes from conversations during our few days at the annual Educause conference was that professors and teachers would like more help putting together online classes. They often want to do the classes, and their schools almost always want them to, but difficulty exists in knowing where and how to start. For that reason, I want to include topics in our blog with advice about teaching classes and look in particular at ways in which Rukuku is equipped to help teachers through the process.

online education, multimedia

Teachers should take advantage of many media options to engage their students online.

The first of those topics relates to class materials. The world is full of exciting media resources and the range of possibilities expands daily. Professors and teachers in online environments can choose text, photos, illustrations, charts, tables, podcasts, other audio material, and video files, and they can create that content themselves or license it from other sources or even refer students to independent information sources on or offline. Teachers of online classes can take advantage of all these media to engage students, including those with less traditional learning styles.

At Rukuku, we make the process of creating and collecting materials for class very easy. Our Composer service allows teachers to cut and paste text and graphics or drag and drop files of any sort into a worksheet. In this way, a teacher can give a class lecture, offer background research, detail homework requirements, even suggest supplemental reading simply by creating a class worksheet. By incorporating existing materials, they may complete that process in minutes. Voila. Class preparation complete.

In our next post, we will discuss the essential element of personal, real-time interaction as well as the importance of prompt feedback.

Finntastic Education!

Government policymakers everywhere want to make their schools better. To do that, many of them look to the country of Finland for guidance. That’s right, Finland. Finland’s education system places first in the world in several different rankings, including this one, conducted by Education firm Pearson.  For comparison, Japan is fourth, Germany 15th, and the US 17th. After learning about the country’s stellar ranking, I wanted to know more. I did a bit of research (aka Googled Finland, Education), and learned some interesting facts.

Finland, education system

Finland’s education system ranks first in the world.

First, and my favorite, Finnish elementary students have more fun. Elementary students in Finland spend around 75 minutes a day for recess, compared to 27 minutes for students in the US. Teachers get more free time, too, spending only four hours per day in the classroom, on average. That leaves more time for evaluation, reflection, collaboration, and further training,

Second, people really want to be teachers. In 2010, 6600 people applied for 660 teaching positions in Finland, according to sources cited by the Smithsonian Magazine. The reason is probably not the salary. Primary school teachers in Finland have an average starting salary of less than $31,000 and maximum salary of about $40,000, compared to $38,000 and $53,000 respectively in the US. The profession is highly respected, though, and the government pays for the masters’ degrees for those accepted into the education training program. All teachers must have master’s degrees.

Those master’s degrees come in handy because the central government also gives a lot of autonomy to the country’s teachers and principals. The national government only offers broad guidelines, leaving it up to local officials and educators to determine the best methods for achieving those goals.

Finally, students usually have only one standardized test, which takes place when students are already approaching the end of high school. Students generally are kept in the same class as well, rather than separated into groups based on performance. As a result, the difference between the highest and lowest performing students is the lowest in the world.

There are many reasons why Finland’s educational model doesn’t translate easily to other places. The country is small, only 5.4 million people, and homogenous, with more than 90% of the population of Finnish descent. But even when compared to similar Scandinavian countries, or states like Kentucky or Minnesota, with similar demographics, its educational system outperforms.

So, which of these points – more recess for children, stricter requirements and more financial support and planning time for teachers, greater autonomy at the local level, or fewer standardized tests – do you think could be most beneficial for the educational system of your city, state, country?