Reflections from a Decade of Online Teaching

by Karen Kemp, Professor Emerita at University of Southern California and UCGIS President 2019-20

As I hear from many of you and read lots of blogs and articles about the challenges of going suddenly to online teaching, my heart goes out to the many of you trying to do your research, advise grad students and learn to teach your own courses online while at the same time learning to teach your school-age children and keeping them entertained while dealing with everything surging around you. I am moved to think about all the lessons I learned in my own decade of teaching online. In 2008 when I started teaching in the expanding online master’s in GIS&T program at the University of Southern California, I was just as green as all of you. How do I do this???

I had the advantage of starting small and not being in the middle of a global pandemic. I was initially hired, working remotely from my home in Hawaii, to create and simultaneously present a single new designed-for-online course in Spatial Databases. Since my university uses a self-production model of online course development, rather than relying on professional online course developers, my colleagues and I had to figure it out as we went along building our courses - just like you!

By the time I was hired to teach online at USC, I had already become quite disillusioned with the traditional lecture model of teaching. Watching all those students struggling to write all my words down without listening to what I was saying was disheartening. Teaching online was my savior! Made me want to teach again. And it also helped me understand that my professorial role should be as a learning guide, not as a professing sage.

Here are a few golden nuggets I can share with you from my own learning path into full-time asynchronous online teaching. I hope you find them helpful.

Teaching online, done right, is WAY more work than face-to-face teaching

I know, I've taught both ways since 1980. Yup, online teaching can be/might be/should be? "24/7" and every student needs personal attention. That's just how it is. The good news is the more effort you put into designing learning materials that will help students get their work done without your input, the less you'll have to do one-on-one!

Keep your ambitions under control

Build courses that truly serve your students, don't try to stuff your class full of everything you think they should know. Keep it under control, you already know how much work it is to teach online!

Use Learning Objectives as the foundation of your courses

The building blocks of all your courses should be a handful of well-crafted learning objectives. "Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to …". NEVER use the words "understand" or "know" in your learning objectives. Action verbs are what you are after, such as recall, classify, implement, organize, plan. Engage with Bloom's Taxonomy. Google "bloom's taxonomy verbs" and you'll find lists of these verbs to get started with.

Spend a lot of time on this first step as these learning objectives should drive everything in your course. If you decide there's something you really want to include in your course and it cannot be fit within your learning objectives, then you either need to add a new one, or take that component out.

Make sure your students understand why they are doing everything you ask them to do

Make sure that all your learning materials and activities directly and clearly relate to the learning objectives. Begin each assignment with a short section that explains why this is important and how it fits into what you want them to learn. And again, don't give them any work that you cannot justify will benefit their learning.

Don't depend on videos to impart all your wisdom

OK, this one shows my personal bias. I know some students these days prefer to learn from videos. I hate it, it seems a very inefficient way to get information (with the possible exception of short step-by-step workflows). My approach was to make a short 5-minute video to be viewed at the beginning of each module (a week or two that is thematically related). This allowed me to show them my personality and my enthusiasm for the topic at hand and to give them a brief outline of what we're going to learn and why.

As far as what I might have delivered as a lecture, lighten your load by leaving that delivery to people who have spent a great deal of time crafting it into a text or articles, or possibly short videos you've found online. There is no need for you to repeat what's in the textbook. It's your job as teacher to guide your students through scholarly material, helping them learn how to read and learn in an informed and critical manner. Teach them how to learn, don't just feed them content!

Supplement the readings or videos with Reading Notes to help them understand what's important. Again, these show my personality ("I love this example!"), mark where I differ from the author ("I wouldn't have defined it this way. My approach is…"), emphasize the key points ("This is the most important concept in this chapter. Memorize it."), provide updated links and other references, and help them not stress about sections that dive deeper than they need to know ("Section 4.6 - just skim this quickly so you know this kind of information exists and come back to it later if you ever need to know more about it.").

Design your assessments very carefully and always with an eye on how hard it will be to grade

Online students DO need more assignments to stay on track and make progress, and you must give rapid and detailed feedback so they can learn from their homework and do better on future assignments. (My goal was always to get the graded assignments returned before the next one was due. Well, it was a goal…)

If they do their assignments well and correctly, that's a LOT easier on you. So, go easy on yourself. Don't give them multiple assignments due at the same time and figure out how to make each one you do assign easy to grade. Make sure that your instructions are detailed and clearly written in good English. Tell them exactly what you are looking for so you can grade to that (rubrics are one way to do this). If your instructions are confusing, you'll create way more work for yourself, answering repeated email questions and giving feedback on poorly completed assignments. 

Good news - There's LOTS of guidance out there on designing assessments for online courses. You're going to need to dig into that literature.

Investigate the tools in your Learning Management System

You will find there are many great tools in the LMS to help you make your courses easier to follow, to share the load by supporting collaboration between students, to assess, to add variety. Take time to try these tools out. Experiment with them, but let your students know when it's an experiment so they don't get frustrated when it doesn't work as planned. Enlist them in helping you figure out how to use it to help them learn.

Reach out for guidance, but don't get overwhelmed

People have been teaching remotely, at-a-distance, online for decades. There are oceans of existing literature and professional development opportunities to guide you on how to do everything you need in your courses. Lots of people have great hints they can give you. Most of that guidance is nicely packaged in simple lists and frameworks that are easy to read and to implement.

Maybe find a colleague to partner with, reading each other's assignments and other course guidance documents to make sure that everything is clear and not confusing or missing key information.

Two places to start for outside help are your own university's version of a "Center for Teaching and Learning" and the Online Learning Consortium ( who offer short certificate programs loaded with tons of help with online course design and the opportunity to learn with and from other faculty like you. Your university may be an institutional member of OLC and that will get you discounted prices. I completed their Online Teaching Certificate and found it a great way to build my confidence that if it felt right in my courses, it probably was a good idea. 

 Bottom line: Don’t try to do everything perfectly all at once and don't overload your students. Design your course thoughtfully, make sure everything included will have value to your students and that they will understand why they are learning it. And, importantly, design your assignments so they are easy to grade and clearly written so that your students understand what you are asking them to do without needing extra (time-consuming) guidance.

I could go on, but you've got plenty of other things to do. I hope you learn to love this new way of teaching as I did, because it is now in everyone's future.

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Comments on "Reflections from a Decade of Online Teaching"

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Joseph Kerski - Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Thanks Dr Kemp! Like you, I have been teaching online for a long time; me, since 2004. My heart goes out to those in the community who were suddenly forced to teach online in mid-semester 2020. Fortunately, GIS has evolved to embrace online tools and the open data movement, so there are many options for data, exercises, readings, videos, and tools to use. That said, I recognize the challenges and again your guidelines here will be helpful. I love teaching online and I also love teaching F2F. Along the lines of your short videos, if the reader of this comment goes to my video channel - see some of my playlists - these include many series of playlists - the short videos Karen spoke about - that I developed for week-by-week required watchings for my students in various cartography, GIS, and geography courses over the years. They're not the end-all but I hope they are helpful. --Joseph Kerski

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