Friday, April 7, 2017

Creating Online Content: Advice from a Pro

If you are a classroom teacher in a traditional school wanting to implement blended learning, chances are that you are going to need to develop online content. Unfortunately, it turns out that simply converting even your best face-to-face lessons and activities into online formats doesn’t guarantee great online learning for students. So what does it take to create meaningful online content for your students? I’ve recently spent some time planning, teaching, and learning with Michele Eaton, Director of Virtual and Blended Learning for the M.S.D. of Wayne Township. In this post, I will share what she has taught me about creating online content.

First, though, I’d like to introduce you to Michele. She focuses on staff and course development for Achieve Virtual Education Academy and provides leadership for the district's blended initiatives.  Michele is a CoSN CETL and 2016 Next Generation Leader, President of the ISTE Online Learning Network, IUPUI online instructor, Conference Chair for the Indiana Connected Educators organization, and moderator for the #INeLearn chat. You can follow her on Twitter at @micheeaton.

Online Vs. Print Reading

It’s important to realize that we read online text much differently than we read printed text. In general, individuals skim much more online than they do in print sources. Of course we want students reading more, not less, but the fact of the matter is online readers are more likely to search text for needed information and only read relevant selections based on their needs. We must keep this in mind when designing content for students.

Most teachers lesson plan by preparing text resources before finding visual media to supplement and support the lesson’s objectives. When creating online content, though, Michele recommends designing visual media first. Students will naturally look at images, infographics, videos, and animations before they read text. Many students are taught to do this from a young age when they are prompted to “take a picture walk” and make meaning from visual media before reading a story. By planning the visual content first, we can then fill in with text and avoid redundancy.

A word of caution: while visual media is an important aspect of student engagement and lesson design, it must be meaningful. When we add in extra media content just because it looks good, we are actually distracting our students from our learning objectives.

Basic Design and Information Overload

Have you recently visited a website that was visually obnoxious? Maybe there was too much writing or the color scheme made it difficult to concentrate on the text. With the wonders of Google, it’s pretty easy to simply leave an overwhelming site and find a similar resource that is visually pleasing. The last thing I want my students doing is skipping over content I’ve created because they feel overwhelmed by it. Consider these tips regarding presentation.

Designing the look of your online content doesn’t need to be difficult-in fact, it should be simple and consistent. Text should be clean and easy to read, using no more than two fonts. As fun as colored text looks, it actually causes eye strain, so keep the bulk of your text black. Too many colors also leads to distraction, so use no more than three colors for your overall theme.

As learners, there is a limit to the amount of information we can process at one time. That’s why teachers break up learning and reading tasks into manageable chunks for their learners. Online content should be designed to aid student learning in the same way. Rather than filling one space with all of the learning content, spread it out into reasonable pieces. This allows students to easily navigate through the content we provide for them. They can easily locate the information they need, and they are less likely to become overwhelmed by too much text.   

A good amount of white space helps students when learning online. It minimizes distractions, allowing students to focus on the content. It also increases legibility. Students can easily read the content, helping them to fully process the information they are learning. For these reasons, it’s best to avoid overfilling your learning space.

Interaction is Key

Let’s be honest. A boring teaching video is no more engaging than a boring lecture. In fact, it’s probably less engaging because students can simply skip forward. They don’t really have that option when we are face-to-face. When learning online, students should have an opportunity to interact with each piece of content that you provide for them.

Interaction engages students in their learning in a way that goes beyond the mindset of clicking through content and guessing on assignments. It also increases student accountability and allows teachers to catch student misunderstandings and provide necessary support. There are three main ways to ensure interaction.

Students can interact directly with the content you have created. If you are incorporating a teaching video, consider using PlayPosit to modify the content. It allows you to embed questions directly into video content, requiring students to respond before resuming the video. There are many interactive learning games that you can also incorporate. Students can take a screenshot of their score at the end and submit it to ensure student participation. Thinglink is another great resource. It allows you to make images interactive for students.

Students can also interact with other students when learning online. Discussion posts are an easy way for students to share their learning, question one another, and provide feedback for their peers. If you are using Google docs with your students, you can easily assign groups and have students collaborate directly within projects and assignments you create. Another interesting idea is collaborative note taking. Essentially, students are assigned a section of notes to complete within a shared document. Students share ideas and support one another as they learn their content. See this great blog post from Shake Up Learning for examples.

Finally, students interact directly with the teacher. The most direct way to do this is for teachers to provide feedback for online learning. Most importantly, though, teachers should be extremely intentional about using actionable data from online learning to influence face-to-face time with students. This is a great way for teachers to provide reteaching and enrichment for students.

A Note on Delivering Content

There are some really great learning management systems (LMS) out there that allow teachers to easily design and deliver content to their students. If you have access to a LMS through your district, take some time to learn how to use it. A little bit of invested time here can go a long way in creating online content.

If you don’t have access to a LMS, consider using HyperDocs to deliver your content to your students. A HyperDoc is an online document where you link your lesson content for students to access. All you need is Google docs or Office 365. The Hyperdoc Girls have a great book, The HyperDoc Handbook, or you can see their website for tips on delivering your online content this way. They even have templates you can copy and customize for free!

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