Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about making college, or younger, students feel as if they are really getting the same education when teaching online versus in the classroom.

As someone who has taught online since 1997 (yes, you read that right) and has taught the same classes both in the classroom and online, I have a few suggestions.

Online Classes Can be Better than Face to Face

Record Your Lectures

The very first suggestion I have is to record your lectures and make those downloadable. The university where I teach has Blackboard and this is an option. If your school does NOT have that option for whatever web meeting software you have and you have a Mac you can make a screen recording with QuickTime and upload it to a YouTube account.

Share Data Libraries

I teach multivariate statistics and we use some methods that require at least a modest sample size. Having students type in hundreds of records is ridiculous. Even better, I can download and clean data from sites like ICPSR or the California Health Interview Survey.

I upload the codebooks to the class website.

I upload these files to a class directory using SAS Studio. I give my students the LIBNAME with read-only access and they have a data set with thousands or tens of thousands of records all set to analyze.

For assignments where data cleaning is part of it, I give them access to the original data.

Yes, you can get SAS for free

Students can get a SAS studio account for free, run their programs, download and send me both their log and their output. 

Make Cheating Less Tempting

Friends who are new to teaching online say cheating is a real problem. I try to remove the temptation by making it harder. If I give you a dataset with 500 variables and ask you to pick 20, run a factor analysis, write up your results and send me your log and output I can at least see it was run under your account and it’s not going to be the same exact variables as someone else. 

That doesn’t mean a student can’t have paid someone to do it for them or had a relative do it. [I was shocked to read on a forum all the women who said they did their husband’s masters degree homework “Because the degree will help our household income and he works all day.”]

This type of cheating isn’t something you can prevent in face-to-face classes either unless you have the student write all of their papers in front of you.

One way to make cheating less tempting is to have assignments that students can individualize. A change I made for the fall semester is to give two different data sets for each assignment. One is the Monitoring the Future study with survey data from youth, the other is the California Health Interview Survey. 

I try to update these datasets fairly frequently, so I just replaced the 2009 CHIS with the 2018 data set.

So, if you are interested in social science or health analytics, you can pick whatever interests you. Sometimes the most hard core engineering majors pick the MTF study of youth because they have an adolescent at home and are curious about national norms, how adolescents rate their communication with parents, etc.

Still, I would like a third data set with something more marketing or engineering focused. If anyone has a suggestion, hit me up in the comments please.

Have Online Discussion Boards and Don’t Make Them Stupid

These boards should not be just a waste of time. Again, related to the preventing cheating, I often ask questions related to their papers, like,

“What variables are you thinking of using for your factor analysis assignment? Do you see any possible problems with those variables?”

The second part of each question is to ask another question for the next student to answer. 

I’m fortunate that I often have students who are in the same cohort so they know each other and will comment on something related to the other students’s work or interest.

Get to Know Your Students

I taught middle school students this summer in a Game Design Course and it was a blast. (We’re doing it again this fall, if you have a middle schooler you’d like to sign up, click here to get info and put GAME DESIGN in the message). 

Whether middle school or adults I ask them to turn on the camera and say hi the first day just so I know what they look like and their voice. 

Just like an in-person class, I start by asking everyone where they are from, making sure I know how to pronounce their names correctly and ask them to tell me one interesting thing. For the middle school students it might be the name of their dog or that they play saxophone. For the adults it might be that they work at CDC or really want to do research on infant mortality in Nigeria, where they grew up.

If you’re not a jerk, online classes can be better for your students

I have heard of instructors who insist all students have on their camera at all times, not on mute, be dressed appropriately, no distracting background. That’s just stupid. For my adult students, they may have small children running around, they may be making dinner. I don’t care. Why should I? If they miss something, they can replay the video later. This is one way online classes are BETTER for adult students.

I asked everyone to turn their cameras on for this picture

For my middle school students, maybe they are embarrassed about their room, their looks. As someone who has taught middle school, I can tell you that there is almost nothing a middle school student can’t be embarrassed about. Maybe they are lounging on their bed while listening to me. So what? This is a way online classes might be better for younger students.

Also, don’t be a jerk about the chat.

I do read all the chat messages that go on while I’m talking. If it is a question to me, I answer it. Some students feel more comfortable typing/ texting than talking.

My adult students never veer too far off tasks. With the middle school ones, I might need to drop into the chat from time to time and say “Enough with the poop emojis”. Usually, though , their classmates do it for me.

Well, I have lots more ideas but it’s Saturday and I have to finish writing my assignments for next month.

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been blogging for four months –

Well, there’s a pandemic, and demand for educational software has spiked, our 7 Generation Games company has upped both users and employees 50%, The Julia Group has more of a demand for online training, analysis and app development so, yeah, been busy.