Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 31, 2014

Personalizing online courses

One UW Tacoma professor says online class makes her a better teacher

Photo of Christine Stevens, Associate Professor

“I’m a much better teacher online because I can talk to every single student. I can target my individual conversations with them to meet their individual learning needs and goals.”

—Christine Stevens
Associate Professor, Nursing & Healthcare Leadership, UW Tacoma


“Teaching online allows me to talk to each student personally every week,” says Christine Stevens, Associate Professor, Nursing & Healthcare Leadership at UW Tacoma. “I don’t get that in a big in-person class of 45 students. Some students are too shy to talk to me in person.”

Stevens teaches multiple online and hybrid classes that involve graded, online discussions. Students are required to respond to questions prepared by Stevens in a forum open to the full class. Stevens also emails each student individually. “I comment on what they’ve said in the forum,” says Stevens. “I point out that they’ve made a good connection to the research, or made a good point. If for any reason they’re having difficulty or need a push on their thinking, I don’t go into the discussion and point that out, I do it privately.”

In personal emails, Stevens may also address cultural and other issues. In her class Representations of Adolescents in Film (T HLTH 330) international students or students who have just immigrated to the U.S. may have difficulty interpreting specific cultural nuances of language of the films under discussion, which include Remember the Titans and Rebel Without a Cause. “They can get help with their questions without having to bring them up before the whole class,” says Stevens.

This kind of communication and review does “take a lot of time,” says Stevens. So does setting up online modules. She credits the staff at UW Tacoma, including Colleen Carmean, Assistant Chancellor for Instructional Technologies, and Darcy Janzen, E-Learning Support Manager, Academic Technologies, with providing the help she’s needed to be successful in her online and hybrid classes, which include Genetics, Genomics, and Nursing Practice (T NURS 345) and Promoting Health Through Social Marketing (T HLTH 320). “They understand technology and they love it, and they understand pedagogy and teaching outcomes,” says Stevens.

Stevens’ four tips for teaching online and hybrid courses

1. Meet in person at least once, if possible

“In the online classes where I have students meet in person for the first class, students tend to feel more connected than in the classes that are completely online. There’s something about the visualness of seeing each other when we meet together that they can take with them,” says Stevens. “I ask my online students every quarter if they think I should continue to hold the first class face-to-face. The majority — 85–98 percent — say yes.”

2. Start with a “free” ungraded discussion

The first assignment, where students introduce themselves, is ungraded. During the quarter, Stevens increases the grading requirements as students get used to the discussion format. “I have a clear grading rubric for points in online discussion,” says Stevens. “Students have to show evidence that they’ve considered the readings and that they’re thinking critically about them with the other students.”

3. Set clear limits for online communication

“The students live online, so they feel very comfortable contacting you and talking to you, and that’s really thrilling. But I tell other faculty you have to make a rule about when you respond,” says Stevens. “I had one student who wrote me at 2 a.m. and then at 7:30 a.m. was calling my boss saying I was unresponsive. Well, at 2 a.m., I am unresponsive.” Stevens advises setting clear expectations. “Some faculty say, ‘If you send me a question on Canvas, it’s going to be 24 hours before I respond.’ Others say ‘Weekends are mine.’ The students don’t care what the rules are. They just need to know about them ahead of time. Otherwise, they assume you’re online all the time.”

4. Give students the chance to lead

“I think the ability to respond respectfully to people online or to lead an online discussion will be very important in my students’ work as nurse educators or health leaders,” says Stevens. So she has students in her master’s class Curriculum Development in Nursing and Health Education (T NURS 511) take turns leading the online class discussion. “It’s been very, very successful,” says Stevens. “Students take their online leadership very seriously. The questions they come up with are deep and detailed, because they’ve really spent time in the reading, which inspires a great conversation.”

Learn more

This article was originally published on November 2014 as part of a UW Provost report on trends and issues in public higher education.