There is no doubt that online education has arrived in Higher Education. Each year, the numbers of colleges and universities offering online courses increases. There is certainly appeal for these types of courses: students can better fit them into busy schedules and traveling to campus is no longer required. While I dabbled in teaching hybrid and online courses for a while, I have been teaching online for most of the past two years. Additionally, I began my graduate career in a hybrid PhD program: two weeks of face-to-face instruction with the rest of the instruction and work provided entirely online, and mostly asynchronously. Having been on both sides of online learning has taught me a few lessons about how best to help students learn in an environment that provides as many challenges (if not more) as face-to-face teaching.
1. Let the technology help you, not hinder you. Whether you are teaching an asynchronous course largely powered by a Course Management System, or incorporating lots of multimedia and synchronous video chats, the first week or so of any online course will be plagued by difficulties with the technology. Students will have trouble navigating the site. The beautiful embedded chat feature won’t work. You’ll find more typos than you knew were possible (okay, this may not be the fault of the technology, but let’s go ahead and blame the QWERTY keyboard for all its flaws). I recommend embedding as many tutorials as possible. I really love the entire line of TechSmith’s products, and Jing is a dead-easy screencasting software that can help you produce quick and easy video tutorials for your students. I also like to do one-pagers with screenshots and arrows to help people when they get stuck at a particular step and they don’t want to re-watch 5 minutes of my screencast (I also sometimes embed a presentation so folks can click through the slides to get the exact point they need.). The point is this: expect things to go wrong, and do as much as you can to help your students help themselves.
2. Anticipate the difficulties. Beyond the technology, learning content in the comfort of your own home (okay, I’ll admit it: IN MY PAJAMAS) can be a lot more difficult than learning it in a class. Lectures tend to me more dull than when delivered in person. Distractions on the internet are well-documented, and they beckon, oh how they beckon. Also, not knowing the other students in the course make for lackluster or awkward discussions: especially when they are asynchronous and text-based. Thinking about even more scaffolding for your students than you’d have in a face-to-face class can help with some of these aspects.
3. Incorporate synchronous opportunities. This follows directly from anticipating difficulties. One powerful way to assist students is to consider well-timed synchronous virtual office hours using Adobe Connect (my University has a subscription) or even Google Hangouts (which is free). These tend to be very popular with my students who often just stop by out of curiosity. I try to include them during weeks when I know the content to be confusing. And I always note to my students that they can set up additional times whenever they need, though I find they rarely take me up on the offer. There has been some interesting and compelling research that shows the importance of synchronicity for student motivation and achievement.
4. Give extra feedback. Then give more. You know when you send an email that you need a reply on pretty quickly? Even five minutes can seem like an eternity to wait. It’s the same with every single thing your students are doing in your online course. Embed mechanisms for students to provide that feedback to one another, but be sure you are doing it as well. I like to send a weekly email or weekly “voicemail (a weekly video message)” that summarizes what we did for the week, where we are going, and trends I see in the class. I encourage a 24-hour turnaround on email responses to students–a policy that should be communicated on the very first day. My students are all over the world, so time zones are all over the map. Having that policy, and even being quicker about it, helps alleviate any anxiety that they may feel being so far away.
5. Prove you are not a dog. Peter Steiner first coined this truth in a New Yorker cartoon in 1993: On the internet, no one knows you are a dog. If you’ve followed the first four steps, your students should have a good sense of who you are. But feel free to sprinkle your discussions with aspects of your life and personality outside of the academic task at hand. This semester, we’ve been using writing prompts from this tumblr, and I make sure to answer them myself in the weekly email. Adding a little personality can go a long way in making students feel comfortable approaching you for help and can make them feel more engaged with the course.
6.Provide support for self-regulation. As I discussed earlier, it’s pretty easy to let the time slip by when taking an online course. Deadlines are easily missed when you don’t have to BE anywhere and no one is reminding you. I like to use a public Google Calendar with all of the course deadlines, including when readings should be completed. I encourage students to subscribe and use the reminder features to send themselves emails or text messages when deadlines are coming up. In an earlier post, I discussed Remind101, another great way to help students stay on track. Finally, consider giving students estimates for how long you intend or expect each task to take: this will help them judge their learning as well.
7. Encourage play. My favorite part of being an “Ed Tech” person is the freedom to play with lots of different tools and applications. Being open about my sense of play, and open with my own failures, models that sense for my students. Online courses often have a reputation of being dry and boring: lots of reading and lots of lectures. Adding in other elements can make all the difference in the world: add pictures when you can, consider design principles in your CMS, record your lectures in front of a small, live audience (I once recorded a weekly email from my campsite, replete with kids shouting in the background and a fly buzzing around my head). The point is, recognize both how you want to teach the information and how it might be received. I try really hard not to be boring.
In the end, there is a lot to consider when teaching online. In many ways, I find online teaching more challenging than teaching face-to-face. I also find the rewards help compensate: talking to my students on Skype who are all over the world still gives me a thrill. Watching strangers care for one another’s learning and success makes me feel like we are doing important work. It’s an exciting time to be in education.
What are your tips for teaching online? What are some pitfalls you’ve encountered?
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