Presenting Content Effectively

Presenting material in an online course isn’t as simple as taking your face-to-face course content, putting it in digital format, and posting it to Sakai (or another website).  It’s important to consider how students learning in an online class will interact with the content and to make sure content is presented in an optimal format for these students. 

Online students have multiple challenges that students in face-to-face classes do not have.  For one, all of the material they are consuming is presented on a computer screen; if you’ve ever worked several hours non-stop in front of your computer, you’ll probably know how tedious it can be to keep your attention focused on one task for a significant amount of time.  It’s also important to add in factors relating to the environment in which the students are studying – students may be taking classes online because they work full time, or because they have children for which they need to care.  There’s a rather large chance that your students are going to be in an environment in which distractions are plentiful, so it’s important to optimize the delivery of your materials so that students are able to stay focused on the content.  Several ways to do this are to chunk the material you are presenting and to incorporate active learning techniques. 

Chunking Materials

When planning the delivery of content to your class, it’s important to consider chunking the material for your students.  Chunking is the process of breaking information up into smaller pieces that can be processed easily by a student's working memory.  You probably already chunk your content to some extent in your face-to-face classes if you divide content up into weekly units or into content areas that you want to cover over a certain time period during the course. You'll want to consider chunking your materials even more in an online course, as students face more distractions in the home environment and it can be difficult to consume a full hour's worth of information when it's presented on a computer screen or via an audio recording.

There are two forms of chunking that you should be considering, chunking by concept and chunking by time. It's good to limit both the number of new concepts that you will be introducing to students at one time as well as the amount of time that students have to stay focused on new material.  Students are sometimes heard complaining about “information overload,” which is essentially what happens when too many new pieces of information are presented to them at one time. Limiting your content to 3-5 new concepts at one time will give students a manageable, but not overwhelming, amount of information to store in their working memory.  This gives students the chance to absorb the new information and make connections with their existing knowledge of the subject. If possible, limiting the chunks of content that you are delivering to 10 or 20 minutes at one time will help them stay focused and engaged with the material.