When I joined the faculty of the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department, part of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS), I – like most instructors – had never taken or taught an online course. All my instructional experience was with face-to-face (F2F) courses. So, when the time to start developing an online course came around, I did not know where to start. Today, four years and several online courses later, I want to share this short list of the things I wish I knew when I started teaching online courses in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).
Every student sits on the front row. Unlike in F2F classrooms, in an online classroom, there is no back row. Every student gets equal access to the instructor and the material. There is simply no crowd to hide behind and no teacher’s pet to answer all the questions. For instructors, this creates countless opportunities to engage students. Even though it can be awkward to do it on video, I always try to ask questions, share anecdotes and even make jokes. I try to keep in mind that on the other side of the camera, there is a student sitting on the front row of my virtual classroom.
Short videos are online currency. The competition for students’ attention is fierce. The internet is full of short videos, and – for better or worse – students are used to this delivery method. So, breaking down large topics into smaller sections helps keep students engaged with the content. It also gives the instructor some control over when students decide to take breaks. I usually try to keep to 15 minutes or less per video, but I have used videos as short as 55 seconds.
Don’t build a course, build an experience. Possibilities are endless with the internet at your fingertips. Want to teach plant evolution? Share the stage with Pam Soltis. Want to talk about plant defense against herbivory? Show your students a video of butterfly larvae eating N. attenuata’s (commonly known as coyote tobacco) small, deadly hairs. Want to teach protected agriculture? Take your students on a virtual tour of Brigiotta’s Greenhouse in Jamestown, New York. Even if the main instructional delivery method for your online course is recorded lectures, linking your course with these multimedia tools will spark interest among students and help liven the course.
It is OK to teach a rigorous course. While this perception is rapidly changing, people tend to assume online courses are less rigorous than F2F courses. There is nothing further from the truth! I have seen online courses that match or surpass the quality and rigor of F2F classes. In my experience, a creative, committed instructor can accomplish ambitious learning outcomes in an online course.
Challenge yourself to create content. While there are great teaching resources to get you started, the best online courses offer content uniquely created for the purpose of teaching. Content creation can take time and resources to get started, but soon enough it becomes second nature. Once you get started, you cannot stop! I recently stopped on the side of a pedestrian bridge in Aptos, California, to take a picture of a wild blackberry plant growing in the median. This picture (with a caption and a question) will be the opening video for a section of my course where we talk about chilling requirements and plant adaptation to different ecological and agricultural niches. This is only an example of how I intend to create unique content for my courses.
As I continue to teach online courses, I keep on coming back to these five ideas. I find that they help me teach courses that are engaging, rigorous and unique. Now more than ever, my students need high-quality online courses.
- Gerardo Nunez, UF/IFAS
Author Bio: Gerardo Nunez is a lecturer at the UF/IFAS Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He teaches courses online and face-to-face through the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). This year, he received the CALS Early Career Excellence in Teaching Award.