Choosing Materials for Your Online Class

This post is part of a series on designing an online class in a hurry and without a lot of training, resources, or support. For educators who are looking ahead to the summer and fall and think they may be asked to teach online rather than in a traditional classroom, this series can help you build an online class that meets or exceeds your obligations to students while recognizing that we’re in a moment that isn’t ideal for this kind of work.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve already gathered the information you need from your university and framed your course. This post is about choosing materials for your students. Depending on your class, it may make sense to select materials before you decide on assignments–or the reverse.

We hold students in online classrooms to the same expectations as students in traditional classrooms. (This surprises and disappoints many of them, so be prepared for that. And just as students in a rigorous F2F classroom may complain that your teaching colleagues don’t demand as much as you do, your online students may make the same complaint. And they might not be lying. The answer to this is “I’m know you are ready for the challenge of this class, and I look forward to seeing you excel!”)

That means the same level of challenge and the same time investment. However, in traditional classes, you are giving feedback to students all the time, answering questions as they arise, smiling when students say something smart, correcting them when they get something wrong, etc. In an online classroom, you miss those opportunities, which means there tend to be more assignments. (Think of it this way: In class, you give feedback to every comment offered by a student–dozens each class session. You replace that in an online class with feedback on individual work.) To ensure that students have time for this kind of work, you may decide to select readings that take less time so that students have more time to produce something for you to give feedback on, or you may select fewer readings in favor of more student writing.

Otherwise, choose texts that are just as challenging as those you use for in-person classes.

Lectures: Despite what you may have heard, online students can handle more than 5 minutes of recorded lecture at a time. How much more varies a lot. You probably wouldn’t lecture for 90 minutes on math or Spanish without giving students a chance to practice what you are teaching, so don’t do that here. But lectures that are dynamic and narrative can easily go for 20 minutes or more. (I’m not saying to use TED Talks as a model necessarily, but it’s clear that people can pay attention to them.)

I recommend at least one brief–like 3-8 minute–introduction to each unit that is recorded, with images. This is where you provide an overview of what the unit looks like. DON’T detail every reading since you might want to replace one of them in the future and don’t want to re-record the overview. But DO state the topic, thesis, and learning objectives so that students know what they are going to be learning about and why.

The presence of additional lectures, their length, and what they look like (podcasts v. video lectures v. something else) are a topic for a different post. Right now, though, even without having recorded anything, you can  decide if you want most of the content students are engaging to be generated by you, by another expert or other experts, or by them. Typically, I find that I do more in a lower level class (perhaps 8 hours of lecture in a 7-week 3.0 credit class), less is in an upper-level elective (1-2 hours), and nearly none in our senior capstone course (where students do most of the leading). The more lecturing I do, the less reading they have to do: 1-2 textbook chapters a week, plus some minor news stories, in a lower-level class; 5-8 hours of academic articles and more in-depth journalistic coverage in an upper level elective; and 3-4 academic articles per week in the capstone. This will likely vary by discipline, too. Point is: look at the overall workload for students when you decide on how much lecturing, reading, watching other videos, writing, and other work they should do.

Readings: Textbooks used for F2F classes are just as effective online. Open-access resources are just as appropriate in one context as another.

Pierre-auguste Renoir Painting - Woman Reading by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Above, Renoir’s Woman Reading (1909). A woman wearing a pink shirt, her brown hair draw up, leans back in a wooden chair. In her hand is a book.

Films: Library holdings of films to stream are remarkable, so students will be able to login and watch movies easily. If the library doesn’t have a film you need as part of a streaming service, if it has a DVD copy, you may be able to get it digitized for use in your class. Ask your instructional designer or librarian for directions. (You won’t need to digitize it yourself–they’ll do it for you.)

Making materials available to students: You are not permitted to put textbooks online as this violates copyright laws. In a F2F class, you may have put one or two copies of your textbook on reserve at the library for students to use. While you can still do this (assuming that the library is open) for an online class, students who are not coming to campus for other classes will likely not come to campus to use it; many, after all, live far away. As you select your textbook, remember that students will likely not be able to share it with each other (since they are typically not local) or check it out from library reserve. They will need to purchase or rent the book, so keep it affordable.

Any other texts should appear within the Learning Management System (LMS) that your school uses; they must be ADA compliant (More on this later). For online videos such as TED Talks, you can embed videos. For articles that are online, you may wish to share both a link and a digital copy so that if the link disappears, students can still open the file. (I recommend doing both just in case a student cannot download the file, and it takes only an additional right click to do this–just copy the link from the URL and add it as a hyperlink to the file. If that sounds scary, it’s okay; you will learn to do this.) Unless learning to locate files outside of the classroom is an important skill for students to practice, put all the files inside your Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc. site. If you are using journal articles from the library, for example, locate them and them upload the PDF of the article to the LMS. If you ask students to locate the article themselves, many will not do it.

Estimating reading time: One easy way you can help students manage their time is to provide them with estimates of how long it will take for them to read/watch/listen to course material. This is easy with podcasts and videos, but you can also run texts through an estimator to see how long it will take them to read the texts. Include this information in the syllabus, next to the name of each assigned reading, as well as in the title of it in your LMS.

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One thought on “Choosing Materials for Your Online Class

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  1. I’m continuing a comment from the post about framing the course. In my case, the class is the mathematics class Elementary Linear Algebra (i.e., no theory) here at Arizona State.

    The strategy for the lecture videos came down to producing two types of videos:

    “Long” videos: These are typically 20-30 minutes, and cover the main points of whatever the current topic is.
    “Short” videos: These are typically 3-10 minutes, and usually focus one one particular type of problem, or they give additional examples, where there may be some details that show up in more complicated situations.

    One other thing to mention is that the format can easily change; you’ll find this out the first time you “teach” the class. In my case, I was surprised that students were asking for a powerpoint of the lecture notes.

    The other thing to remember is: There’s all types of learning styles. Some students like reading documents, others like watching videos. You should accommodate both learning styles, not just use videos for one type of topic.


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