Designing an online ESL course

One of the ideas put forth in my Strategic Vision is the development of online courses. The university likes the idea of online courses, of course, and so do I. We have one on the schedule for summer, and I think we will continue to  offer a couple of courses each semester.

When I first saw it a couple weeks ago, I bookmarked an article by Henry and Meadows called An absolutely riveting online course: Nine principles for excellence in web-based teaching.  The article is interesting and worth more time than I have given it so far.  But I want to begin thinking about it “out loud” here.

Their first principle is that the web is a unique medium and what works in a f2f classroom may not work online.  That seems pretty obvious, and yet, I know it really isn’t.  They stress the use of shorter audio and visual clips rather than full lectures.  Since I never lecture in a traditional way, that shouldn’t be a problem.  I mostly will explain  a grammar point or how to format a paper or some other small chunk of information.  But I will need to think about this in terms of everything that I do in the course. They talk about the preparation of materials being time-consuming, and I know from what I am doing now, that is very true.

Their second principle is:

In the online world content is a verb.

I love that — but I am not sure I totally understand it.  They are talking about learning activities, of course.  I think that I do a fair job of this, but thee is a lot of room for improvement.  In ESL, at least in a academic setting like mine, we are learning skills and strategies and how to use them.  There is a lot of practice built in, but I need to think about how that translates to a totally online environment.

The thirst principle is about using appropriate technology — not necessarily the newest or fanciest and cetainly not everything available.  In other words, the technology has to fit the pedagogy.  This is something that I have struggled with since I began using technology in my classes.  Fortunately, I have been using technology for several years now, so I have some insight into this.  My use of wikis and blogs this semester has proven to be a real learning experience for me.  In the class where I am only using a blog, I think I have better activities for it than I do in the class where I am using both a wiki and a blog.  Students in that class with both seem unsure about what goes where.  And I am not sure now why I thought it was important to have them use both.  No, that isn’t true — I know why I did it.  And I think the reasons are valid.  But I didn’t differentiate enough between the kinds of things they are doing on the wiki and the things they do on the blog.  That is something to keep in mind.

The fourth principle is more problematic: It is the teaching, not the technology, that makes an onliine course great.  Again, that sounds so simple.  But it isn’t.  They mention things like feedback to students and clearly stated objectives.  I am pretty good about feedback, but sometimes students have said in evaluations that they weren’t sure how all the pieces of the course went together.  So I need to work on that.

The fifth principle talks about the need for community in an online course.  This will be a challenge for me in some ways.  As an online student, I don’t like all those chatty introductions at the beginning of the course.  It seems like a waste of time to me.  But I know from the groups of students I am working with online, the ones who participate in regular text chats with the group seem to be much more involved in the course.  It is a chicken and egg, thing, of course; I am not sure which is the cause and which is the effect.  But there is a correlation, so this is something I need to work on.

The sixth principle they mention is that you need multiple kinds of expertise to do online education.  Content knowledge, computer skills, and course design skills are all important.  Pretty much I am working along on this — except that  do have a number of friends and colleagues around the world I can consult with as needed.  But on-site, I am working alone.  I am not worried about this aspect, though.  I have enough experience with this to give me a pretty good handle on what I will be called on to do.

The seventh principle talks about the need for a good interface.  Anticipate student questions and confusions.  Make it all as user-friendly as possible.  This is one reason why I think I am reluctant to use a wiki in a totally online course — except as the home of the course.  I wouldn’t want to try to teach people how to sue a wiki while I am teaching them English.  It took a fair amount of time at the beginning of the semester to get my f2f students onto the blogs and the wiki.  I can see it being much harder with online studnets.  So, at least in the beginning, I might use a wiki as the home of WebQuests and other activities, but I don’t think I would use the wiki as a place for them to report their results.  That, actually, would facilitate the problem that I talked about with the lack of clarity in the class where I am currently using both a blog and a wiki.  Something to remember!

Principle number eight calls for ongoing assessment and evaluation.  In a f2f environment, I get that feedback every day iin a variety of ways.  I need to remember to build more of that into the online courses.  Of course, I will evaluate from semester to semester, but I need to evaluate and assess how things are going throughout the semester, as well.

The final principle says that the little extras can go a long way with students.  Grading rubrics, discussion forums, tutorials, and such help students   find their way through the course.  Henry and Meadows also mention emails as a good way to make a personal connection with students.  Also, audio clips – maybe at the beginning of each unit of instruction – outlining what will go on or commenting on what has happened – can help.  That last one is a great idea, I think, and one I want to remember.

So from this one article, I have gained a lot to think about.  I need to start on the course and see what happens.  I know there is a lot more I need to learn, but I think this article gave me a lot of good ideas.


4 thoughts on “Designing an online ESL course

  1. John says:

    Before you invest too much time thinking about ESL online, you might check into SEVIS requirements. I had started thinking about it a year ago and found out from our international student coordinator that international students enrolled in the U.S. must have 9 out of 12 hours in non online classes. I abandoned even thinking about it for the nonce.

  2. Nancy says:

    Thanks, John! I am aware of the limits on online instruction for ESL students. But what we are thinking about is for summer, when our students go home, or for a semester before students are actually admitted as full-time students. I am not sure if this will work, but our international advisor is behind it. We’ll see, I guess, if there is enough demand.

  3. Elizabeth Killingbeck says:


    I am so curious how your course turned out! I am looking into doing research within the ESL online (or EFL online, to be more accurate) classroom. I am particularly curious about higher ed or IEP programs. Please let me know if you wouldn’t mind sharing your work/research!



    • Nancy McKeand says:

      I have to admit that nothing happened with this idea. There were a wide variety of reasons for this — none of which had to do with the idea of an online ESL course. I wish I had something to share with you because I really think it would have been worked and been useful to both the university and the students.

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