Top 5 Best Practices from #BPF2016

by Christine Scherer and Kristina Wilson

Each year, Northwestern’s Office of Change Management hosts the Best Practices Forum, a one-day conference in which a wide range of faculty and staff present their recent successes in order to provoke positive change across the university. The event promotes collaboration between departments, and Provost Daniel Linzer provided a great illustration of that in his opening address, calling Northwestern a  “unioneversity.”

Content Editor Christine Scherer and Learning Designer Krissy Wilson attended the 2016 Best Practices Forum as representatives for the School of Professional Studies Distance Learning group, and identified these Top 5 Best Practices for online course developers and instructors.

1. It takes a team.

Tom Collinger, Senior Director of the Medill Distance Learning Initiative, discussed his takeaways from developing an online master’s degree program in Integrated Marketing Communications.

Initially, he said, faculty approached development of online courses with an independent mentality: “It’s a solo sport,” they said. Post-development, the same faculty noted, “It takes a team.” When developing your course, collaborate! Learning Designers, Instructional Technologists, and Subject Matter Experts all know that building a great online course takes a team.

2. Professional development is for faculty too.

Samir Desai, Director of Learning & Organization Development spoke about the potential of Learn@Northwestern, an internal learning management system to support university training and professional development.

He envisioned a database system that would make hosting online training and assigning relevant professional development activities easy for supervisors. He even spoke about the potential for streamlining the onboarding process and how Learn@Northwestern could be used by faculty as well as staff.

Although Learn@Northwestern is still a few years away, the university’s investment in this system is a reminder to engage in professional development, and online instructors for the School of Professional Studies can take advantage a number of opportunities. Check out the Professional Development section of the Online Learning Resources page, or contact your Learning Designer for more information about OLC workshops and Quality Matters courses.

3. Connect with your students on LinkedIn (the right way).

In her lunchtime keynote, Rachel Davis Mersey, professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications, discussed the power of social media for professionals, touching briefly on how students and their instructors connect on LinkedIn.

This best practice might ring especially true for online instructors. You know the Skills and Endorsements part of your profile? Students may endorse your skills hoping to get you to endorse their skills in return. Be wary of flattery, and provide endorsements sparingly.

4. Find new ways to use Key Performance Indicators.

In this afternoon session led by Program Review staff, attendees were encouraged to identify Key Performance Indicators that could be used to set goals (a target) and monitor progress throughout the year (a baseline).

Some examples provided included:

  • In social media, percent engagement per post.
  • In academic departments, average number of publications by faculty each academic year.
  • In research areas, amount of grant money raised each fiscal year.

In each case, said Amit Prachand, it is important to “tell a story by merging opinion with data.”

Using Canvas Analytics, what goals can you set and monitor for yourself and your students? What can you do to ensure that students are logging in at least every other day? Can you identify trends in late assignments to adjust deadlines accordingly? Can you identify and reach out to students who are performing poorly?

For more information on using Canvas Analytics in your online classroom, check out the March 2016 webinar or contact Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham.

5. Plan ahead for collaboration.

Northwestern University has launched a number of MOOCs, but perhaps none were so challenging as the Organizational Leadership Specialization on Coursera. Designed as an interdisciplinary certificate, the specialization involved faculty and staff from the Kellogg Business School, the McCormick School of Engineering, the Medill School, and the School of Communication.

With so many different players involved, collaboration was key, and the staff who talked about their experience shared some things they learned. Key among their collaboration advice was the idea of front-loading the process with plans, clear expectations, and definitions of roles.

By laying all of this out up-front and by maintaining clear, frequent lines of communication, this enormous project was completed on time and even earned accolades from Coursera as one of the top ten specializations offered on the site!


Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Nim Chinniah offered this thought in his closing remarks: “[Universities] are wired to collaborate,” he said.

For many online faculty, especially those that live outside of the Chicago area, it can be difficult to engage with other faculty in your program, Distance Learning staff, and the university as a whole. Reach out! We’d love to hear from you.

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