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For students to do well in the courses I teach, they have to understand how the course software works. Since the courses are 100% online, the spaces that our course software creates become the classroom where we interact. If students cannot get to those spaces or do not fully understand how they work, they can fail the course.
Given this potential, I make time for software instruction, no matter how packed the course is with subject area content and related work. Generally, I approach software instruction as needed to complete activities in the course. For instance, I talk about how to use banded rows to increase table readability as students work on an assignment that requires creating a table. The software instruction is directly tied to doing well on the activity, so students are motivated to learn the related technical skills.
The challenge is knowing when students will need help with the software that doesn’t relate to specific assignments. Students come to the course with a variety of experience, so I cannot assume that they all need the same instruction. I encourage students to help themselves by linking to the documentation from course materials. Beyond that, I’ve relied on two strategies:
- Wait until someone asks.
- Look for patterns that suggest students need help.
In both cases, I either provide a link to the documentation or provide a customized explanation with video or screenshots. These techniques work, but I’d like to do more.
This term, I decided to focus on software instruction from the first day of classes. I gave students a curated list of links to the student guide to the software. Focusing on the commands and tools that I knew students needed for the course reduced the number of documentation links 90%, from 241 to 24 links. No longer do students have to search through pages and pages of information to find what they need—and I benefit from linking to the official documentations, which I don’t have to maintain.
I asked students to read through the entire list. I don’t expect them to memorize the list or click on every link. I just want them to remember there was a resource that listed the main tools they need to use in the course. After skimming through the list, they chose at least one software task to learn more about. I asked students to read the details in the documentation and then try the tool.
For extra points, students could post a reply describing what they found in their exploration. To my happy surprise, the activity yielded 75 replies. Students explored a variety of tools, focusing on whatever interested them. Repeatedly, students explained that they had found some capability in the software that they never knew existed.
Will students remember everything they read? Undoubtedly not, but they do know where to find details on the key commands they need for the course. Since this was the first activity in the course, students and I can draw on it for the entire term. Overall, it seems like a successful strategy that I hope to continue using.
How do you make time for software instruction in your courses? What resources do you share with students? Tell me about the strategies you use by leaving a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.
Photo Credit: _MG_3783 by VIA Agency on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
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