Taking an online course has been an eye-opening experience for me as an educator – it really helped me empathise with my students. While I have limited online teaching experience, I have never really taken a full course online using the technologies I teach with.

It feels like a long time since I have been a student. Most of my education was in-person. However, I did grade 11 through the virtual school (to stay home with my baby) and took some correspondence courses in University. Technology has come a long way since then. My virtual school experience was quite text-heavy.

Fun fact: I got pregnant at 16 and still finished high school on time thanks to online learning.

Having been an educator for a long time it is sometimes easy to forget the little things that make being a student hard. A lot of accidental learning has happened as a result of taking two online courses in the last few months. The biggest takeaways for me are not what the course outcomes outlined. Students in our classes often learn more than we intended when they truly engage in online learning.

qimono / Pixabay

The Courses

Making Sense of Open Education

One was a free MOOC run by Jenni Hayman about Open Education, for which I received a badge. You can see my blogs about this course here. The 15-day course was hard to keep up to even though a lot of the information was a review for me. I wasn’t sure if I would have the time to complete it, but I did. The course was in June, which was busy with several all-day meetings.

I was motivated to participate by the opportunity to earn a badge, a desire to network, delve deeper into open education, and my admiration for the facilitator (who I knew through her work at eCampusOntario – the course was not part of that job). As it turned out I got the badge in the end and met some interesting people in the process,

Designing Your Online Course

The second course (click here) was a closed course from Quality Matters about teaching online. It was quite appropriate that it was strongly recommended by the person hiring me for my new role as Cambrian’s Innovation Champion. Since I had never taught an online course at Cambrian before it made sense to take the course. I took this 15-day course during while starting a new job and during semester start-up. It ends tomorrow. While that seems like bad timing, I really didn’t have a choice since my online course starts now (first live session is Friday. I met the students today). After almost withdrawing due to a bad first-day experience, I am happy I took it. Even though this post points out things I want to do better or did not like the course was actually really good overall.


Open vs. Closed

Personally, I liked the feel of the open course better. I may be biased as I identify as an open educator. Jenni encouraged us to share everything and in the way we wanted to. Discussing the course on Twitter and through this blog helped broaden my learning because I was not limited to the people enrolled in the course.

In contrast, I did not tweet or blog much about the QM course because their licensing agreement was a little scary. In fact, I almost asked my boss if I could withdraw from the course on day one because of how displaced I felt. Instead, I asked my facilitator if I was a good fit for the course and decided to stick it out (her reply was awesome by the way … but I won’t share it since I don’t want to get in trouble).

Question to QM

Question to QM

QM does encourage sharing on Twitter, but they seem to want us to get people excited about taking the course ($200). The licensing agreement (which I am scared to share) had me feeling like I could not actually add value to an online discussion without breaching their confidentiality agreement. Recently Lang (2018) talked about making our collaboration expectations explicitly clear in order to prevent cheating. I think that talking about how much collaboration is equally important for promoting engagement in a course when that is what you are looking for from your students.

This experience also had me thinking about the wording of our institutional policies and how they might make students feel when reading them. Do they come across as harsh, restrictive, uncaring, and punitive? I certainly hope not. I put a lot of effort into being approachable. Being approachable is a key factor in promoting student engagement and safe practice. I will be paying more attention to the wording of my communications. Also, I have started using more video so students can see that I am serious when saying that things are optional in the course. Consequences for cheating or unsafe practice need to be clear, but how we frame them is equally important.

Prescriptive vs. Facilitator

Jenni didn’t dictate the pace at which we completed modules, yet she reminded us that she was only moderating the course for a limited time. She also indicated that it was a lot to keep track of for her so she was focusing on particular modules during certain flexible timeframes. It was a welcoming approach that respected her time and our agency. The course remained open for a long time after it closed and can still be accessed today. Everything is also in Google documents, making it easy for me to save the information for later. As a result, I could feel comfortable with where I was at in my learning knowing that I could return to the modules in the future if I wanted to. It felt good to be done but I was not worried about access to the information.

On day 1 of the QM course, I received several messages. The first one I opened had something to the effect of you must log in today in bold. Then I read several messages dictating what I should do and in what order. It was more rigid and quite a different feel than the MOOC I had just completed and I did not like it (some of my students would). Throughout the course, there were several reminders to complete checklists on time or we would be unsuccessful in the course and need to re-register. While checklists and reminders are a good thing and are likely in place for good reasons I did not find that the course had enough flexibility for working professionals. There was this looming sense of fear of failure for me taht was reinforced by these messages. I have never failed a course so that scares me even though I found the course easy.

In addition, we have only one day after the course ends before we do not have access to the thing my institution paid $200 for me to work through. I have a problem with that. Yes, it has forced me to block time to complete the course today in the middle of class start-up. Thankfully I am able to finish on schedule, but what would have happened if someone in my family needed me to take time off? If I was hospitalised? (They also expected us to work on Labour day. I worked ahead instead). I think I would have been told to pay to take the course again (and I would have said “no thanks”.

My students are working. They have families. Life happens. Happy things. Sad things. No matter what happens I believe we need to be flexible with our students. I recommend reading the post above by clicking here. Today, on the final day of the course there is a bit of a sense of panic wondering if I have downloaded all the documents I want and saved the links I can save (a lot is embedded behind the paywall).

Students in our courses at Cambrian have access to the course shell inside Moodle for some time after the term ends (I am checking how long). Moving open allows me to leave my website up forever if I want to. Now I appreciate how awesome that is for students. I am evaluating the use of open education at Cambrian as part of my two-year Innovation Champion position and have just added to my reasons why I liked open.

Learning Options

Jenni made it clear that there were a lot of options for how we could meet the learning outcomes in the course in our posts. That helped me make my learning more meaningful. I have borrowed that idea for my classes and left my activities open for modification in BSN4416. As someone who has some teaching experience I honestly felt that some of the activities in the QM course was busy-work. I would have preferred to modify the activity to be more meaningful but didn’t want to fail. For example, right now I am doing my own thing instead of responding to the reflection on the course prompts. However, I will go back and do them (but I would argue that this post should satisfy the criteria). Students in my course have a lot of agency over their learning. I have tried to communicate that in descriptions, the course trailer and infographics.


Being clear and organised is so important in teaching! Both courses were really well organised. Yet, I sometimes had a hard time knowing exactly what was expected of me. I found myself relying on checklists more than I thought I would. The problem I had sometimes was knowing if I should check the thing off. This experience had me thinking about how important the completion settings in the learning management system (LMS) are (or how clear I am about if expectations are met when outside the LMS).

I also learned how important it was to be extremely clear about what I was expecting. At a recent PD session (I can’t remember which one), the speaker said that no student would hand in something that didn’t meet expectations on purpose. That is so true!


What seemed like a shot to-do list actually took a lot of time to work through as a learner. I was told to track my time in the QM course, which I loosely did. I can’t be accurate due to interruptions and constantly being distracted by doing my own thing. I would see something I liked then start making improvements to my course without even realising I had veered from the activities. One night I worked until 11:30 pm just to get caught up on the checklists.

Online Couse Development

Teaching online is not the same as teaching in-person. I wish I had more time to develop online teaching materials for the my course. Even though I feel prepared to discuss the material it would be optimal to have detailed checklists and other materials ready in advance. It would make the student experience better. I am lucky to have the support of the hub team this term as I explore teaching online, being open about it, and going gradeless in this online course (that has never been online before). Just like with any class I hope to build it over several iterations (providing that I get to teach it again).


Taking an online course is still hard. It takes discipline. Today, when I introduced myself to my students I said: “please don’t forget about me.” I will use a lot of the strategies I have learned about teaching online to remind them that I exist, but I also need to be aware of how much I ask of them. Clear communication, flexibility, and approachability will be critical in supporting the success of my students.

PS: I am actually interested in taking another QM course even though I did not like everything about the setup. I would take an open course run by Jenni any day.


Laura Killam is an experienced nursing educator from Northern Ontario with a keen interest in improving student learning through innovation. For more information please visit http://nursekillam.com/.


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