Eliza Richardson, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
From your experience, what practices make for excellent online Earth Science learning?
The one single practice that makes for excellent online Earth Science learning is essentially the same one which makes for excellent learning in any environment: knowing the instructor cares about you and your journey through material. In an online environment, the way an instructor cares for the students may be delivered differently or with asynchronous timing but it is absolutely essential that it be delivered. Three important and interlinked ways an instructor can demonstrate how much he cares for the student experience in his online class are: 1. Planning ahead, 2. Expectation management, 3. Clear explanations.
Planning ahead means that when you create a new lesson or new activity, you must step through it yourself first to make sure it works the way you predicted it would. In a face to face laboratory course, we can often get away with teaching a new lesson on the fly and troubleshooting problems in real time as they come up, but when teaching online, you won't look creative by doing this, you'll look sloppy and unprepared. Students will realize you didn't care enough about them to make sure your exercise would work. In practice this means checking that links to databases and reading assignments are working, and that students have enough time between the assignment and the due date to get help if a wrong first step ruins the exercise.
Expectation management means that you are clear in communicating with your students how often you will check in with them, how soon they can expect a reply when they have a question, and how long it will take for you to grade their assignments. It is crucial that feedback on the first few assignments be detailed and prompt so students know what level of thinking you expect from them for the rest of the course.
Clear explanations go a long way when you ask students to work with large databases, electronic plotting programs, or engage in group activities. If your directions are too long and cumbersome, nobody reads them which is the same as not having written them at all. If they are too short or vague students will give up in frustration. You don't want the cognitive load of trying to navigate poor instructions to be so high that students don't have any brainpower to spare for thinking about the interesting science that was the whole point in the first place! Use both screencasts and written explanations. It takes time and practice to produce the right set of directions but it is always worth doing. When you clarify directions or explain scientific content for students, always keep the questions and your responses to save time next time you teach the class when the same question crops up.