Online learning is rapidly replacing its face-to-face counterpart in higher education, and that means course design strategies need to be rethought. Personalized learning refers to customizing learning and considering the pace at which it occurs to meet individual needs, circumstances and challenges. Learners have a say in what, how and when online learning takes place.

The idea of personalization in the virtual classroom may be daunting for faculty members—especially those who teach large introductory classes. However, using educational tools to generate consistent feedback loops is an effective way to understand academic preferences. Putting personalized learning into practice will provide students with agency, help them connect course materials to other aspects of their lives and lead to improved student insights. Here are five questions to ask when forming a personalized online course.

1. How do you gauge pre-existing knowledge and preferences?

Before you can personalize your course content and delivery, it’s important to first understand where students stand academically and socially. Student interest inventories are essentially ‘get to know you’ forms that capture interests, learning experiences, learning styles and other non-academic circumstances. When meeting students for the first time, icebreakers are equally effective in gauging student interests and mindsets in an informal way. These icebreakers, which can be easily run through Top Hat or Zoom, capture students’ backgrounds and ensure all learners are comfortable participating.

Diagnostic and formative assessments are effective ways to understand where students stand academically. Diagnostic tests should be administered at the start of each unit to gauge and correct misconceptions. Formative assessments can be administered periodically through the semester to assess course-related skills and knowledge. Formative assessments also lend themselves to feedback loops, whereby you can receive regular insight on how students are progressing and understand who is struggling. From here, you can personalize your curriculum by directing students to appropriate resources or services while individually following up with those who may need help.

Once you know the social and academic backgrounds of your students, follow these steps to ensure you optimize your online classroom for maximum personalization.

2. What does your availability look like as a faculty member?

Online courses are the starting point for learning and exploration. Interaction outside of class time is just as valuable in helping students succeed. Top Hat’s student survey report indicates that 85 percent of students missed interacting with faculty members when remote learning took flight in the spring semester. Consider how your class will communicate with you outside of lectures or labs in order for students to keep engaging with course content. Explore the following ways to provide a humanizing and engaging experience for everyone in your class.

  1. Virtual office hours: Offer real-time office hours to answer questions in an informal setting. Consider appointment-based alternatives since not everyone will be able to attend the live slot. Office hours can be used to discuss academic matters but it’s important to be mindful that with an unprecedented semester, new social matters may be brought up by students. In both scenarios, empathy goes a long way.
  2. Weekly review sessions: Your teaching assistants (TAs) may want to facilitate tutoring sessions for students who struggle with certain topics or units. They can then provide you with actionable insights that can be used to inform your curriculum and real-time online class experience.
  3. Leverage the capabilities of your LMS: It’s important to consider asynchronous discussions with students. Apart from being a central space for housing course content and readings, most learning management systems (LMS) like Blackboard and D2L come with discussion boards. Use these threads to facilitate reflection questions or invite students to share their thoughts around course-specific or campus-related topics. You may also attach media and resources to these threads for students to refer to. Top Hat’s discussions go one step further and offer the ability to respond anonymously—ensuring all students feel comfortable voicing their concerns.

3. How will you build community online?

Textbooks and lectures are only one part of the student journey. The other component is rooted in interactive, collaborative learning experiences. Especially with online learning, collaboration can lead to a more holistic online education environment and ensures students are engaged at every step. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, innovations lead at California State University’s Channel Islands campus, refers to interweaving community in your course as ‘humanizing learning.’ A humanizing learning experience means considering ways for students to interact with one another—a component that 86 percent of students missed with remote learning in the spring, according to Top Hat’s student survey report.

Community allows for more transparency in the classroom. When students are comfortable around one another and around faculty members, they may be more likely to voice concerns and opinions without fear of repercussions. Transparency should be prevalent in community building since you will be given a chance to understand how students feel about your course and other non-academic priorities. This information can then be leveraged to provide an individualized online environment for students. After grasping students’ needs and concerns through discussion boards or assignments on your LMS or an active learning platform like Top Hat, you may also consider ways to support their learning outside of your classroom—for instance, pointing them to a webinar and other online resources on a specific area of interest.

4. How does flexibility fit into your course materials?

Online learning comes with a new set of responsibilities beyond academics. Students may not be able to complete coursework at a certain time or tune into a real-time online class due to caretaking, cleaning, cooking and a variety of other competing responsibilities. With semester-long or high stakes assignments that involve multiple deliverables, encourage students to set a deadline schedule. This schedule allows students to form their own timelines—within reason—and ensures they aren’t penalized for requesting extra time to complete their work. Two professors at Cornell University found that flexible deadline schedules led to students being grateful for this empathetic gesture and more importantly, students completed their work in a timely manner. The professors also found that by the end of the online semester, the volume of outstanding student work was significantly lower compared to previous on-campus semesters.

5. How is your course content accessible?

With the pivot to online learning, equity and accessibility concerns are under the spotlight more than ever before. Top Hat’s faculty preparedness field report indicates that only 45 percent and 54 percent of respondents have taken steps to manage student equity issues arising from synchronous and asynchronous online teaching methods, respectively. Online teaching is here to stay—and that means addressing accessibility needs to be top of mind as you enter the new semester.

Part of optimizing and personalizing the learning experience means considering where and how learning will take place. The rule of twos aligns with universal design for learning (UDL)—a framework to ensure course work is presented in various ways that meet the needs of a diverse student body. The rule of twos means considering at least two ways for students to interact with course content—such as through a real-time lecture, which is then complemented by a lecture recording. Implementing asynchronous course design into your online classroom allows students to work on a timeline that suits their needs and circumstances. Multiple engagement options to choose from ultimately provides students with a way to personalize their own educational experience.

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