by George Stanley Reeley, Ph.D.
Almost every day I read articles on how to become a better online teacher and engage students so they will benefit from our time together and consequently take away useful and applicable information from the course. Often times technology is a barrier rather than an aid to help students through their online experience; however, once this phase is mastered, it is then up to the instructor to find ways to connect, contribute, and encourage students to remain with the course through its entirety—and be happy. This piece highlights several best practices that I have found to be useful since teaching online more than a decade ago.
Start Your Engines
Make no mistake--students expect the instructor to join in the discussions and make frequent comments to them with regard to the subject matter being taught. There is a noticeable absence when the instructor fails to engage, and ironically students are surprisingly appreciative when the instructor posts targeted responses to them. Further, I cannot overstate the importance of encouraging students to engage with each other, perhaps beginning with an Introduction thread in week one, and subsequently attempt to establish a sense of community within the course room—by purporting a philosophy that we are all in this together. Because most online students hail from an array of diverse backgrounds, it is interesting to learn this early on—and celebrate it--so that students can develop a broader world view.
I find it quite important to share course expectations with students from the very beginning of class. Students are likely already apprehensive about working online, the anticipated complexity of the subject matter, and the amount of time they will need to commit in order to be successful. To help students prepare for the coming weeks, in week one as part of the first announcement, it’s good to share a week by week synopsis when assignments are due and all responsibilities they will need to assume to be successful. Do this beyond what’s in their syllabus—as this document can appear dull and uninspiring to them. Nothing is more stressful for students than ambiguity.
Mix it Up
Indeed, variety is the spice of life, so in order to better inspire and engage students—especially the more serious learners, it’s best to provide assorted methods to learn the material, whether in groups (good career practice), along with their individual work. By mixing things up a bit, students are given the opportunity to grow and develop—yes—but also the course experience becomes more interesting and less predictable.
While it should not be mandatory, it’s a good idea to make real time learning options available to students, even though students are taking the course online. While key words here are optional synchronous, by providing opportunities for students to participate in class and interact with the instructor and student colleagues in real time, this somehow makes some students feel that the online experience is more real and they aren’t alone.
It can be very revealing to get a pulse of your class early on, say during week three—so set up a feedback thread early in your course and ask students to let you know how they think it’s going—but be prepared. If adaptations can be made to better accommodate students gleaned from these early comments, the remainder of the course will surely proceed better for them and you, the instructor. Further, students are often appreciative simply being asked about the progress of the course while changes can still be made, rather than at the conclusion of the course when only the next group of students will benefit from their remarks.
Stay Out of the Clouds
Indeed, course materials such as the text (many are e-books these days) and journals from online databases are very useful to the learning process; however, postings by students on discussion boards are by far the most engaging form of online learning methods. Here students can corroborate theory with their real world experiences to make it all fit together pragmatically. Further, postings that are merely pontifications do not fare well, so it’s best that students converse openly, respectfully, and engage in a conversation where everyone has the opportunity to participate, just as they would in an on-ground class room. By broadening the scope of discussions and allowing a free-flowing exchange of ideas, class is more fun and much more is learned that can be applied.
Because many students taking courses online are juggling career, family, and school, it is best that courses are made to fit their lifestyle; consequently, the online experience should be portable. This being said, students should be able to conveniently respond to discussion questions and download assignments using today’s mobile devices. While adapting to this paradigm shift will surely be a learning curve for many of us (instructors), today’s online students need to have the option to go to school as remotely as possible—particularly because many online students are in the military, some actually deployed, and when considering this reality, the rationale for mobility becomes clear
I am always exploring new techniques that relate to every learner. While some aspects of school can appear lofty to some students, it’s best to find ways to make theory and real world come together. When students can make a connection between the subject matter from the text with issues that are actually occurring in their everyday lives, the learning experience feels real to them, and becomes more rewarding for the student—and the instructor.
It’s a wrap--or stated in another way, work to develop a cohesive summary of the course by showing students how all material covered was linked together. Ending with a bang can be perceived equally as important as how well the course began. When the instructor presents a powerful course summary (and here’s a tip, give students an opportunity to reflect on their course experience), students will view their time spent as an event where the core message was threaded together seamlessly and the subject matter effectively conveyed. Students wish to feel they completed what they began, and instructors can help them to realize this by closing the course just as powerfully.
Teaching online will present new and challenging opportunities in the future as more students choose this method for earning a degree compared to going to class in traditional on-ground environments. Evolving technology will make access to learning more convenient and mobile; however, nothing can be a substitute for the role of an engaged online instructor. In my experience, the more time you invest working with your students, the more rewarding of an experience you will have—and they certainly will, too!