As one who makes lists, a list about online learning would be a natural for me. Admittedly, my Top 10 List for online instructors is limited by a fault in all such lists; namely, it merely reflects the thinking of one person at one point in time. OK, with those caveats, the person is me, and the time now.
10. Collaboration, community and communication. Let’s face it; online learning can really seem a distant, isolated and lonely enterprise were it not for some of the tools an instructor can use to create social cohesion. Fortunately, there are an array of tools that can bridge the social distance of online learning. Some of these tools create community like social networking, wikis, and web conferencing, while others foster group work like project management tools (i.e., Basecamp), document sharing tools (Google Docs, Dropbox). The tools for communication like lecture/ screen capture, webinar software, blogs, discussion boards and chat rooms allow for exchanges needed to break the isolation.
9. It’s not them versus us. Whether the mode of teaching is online or traditional, there is a pervasive sense among many in the professorate, that students are — (fill in the blank — unmotivated, lazy, not prepared, unable to think). There is a wide gap between teachers and students, made even more so by a totally outdated instructional paradigm that places the professor at the center of the class, rather than student learning. One consequence of this arrangement is a chasm between two groups in the learning process. The recent concept of “learning community” is a much more productive model that allows for a closer relationship between students and teachers.
8. Feel the passion. We all have seen professors who have lost the reason they became professors in the first place, namely their passion for both their subject and the teaching of students. These professors, whatever their mode of delivery, need to be let go. Often this can’t be done because of the institution of tenure. However, even in an online class, there is a myriad of ways to make the topic engaging, alive and delivered with an undertone of passion by the instructor. Without passion, all the players will go through the motions of learning without actual learning taking place.
7. Use technology. Yes, you’re teaching online and in all likelihood employing a course management system (CMS). That may be necessary, but it definitely is not sufficient. It is incumbent of online instructors to become versed with instructional technologies. Such technologies can engage students, help students learn new tools/skills essential in a modern workforce, and improve actual learning in your class. Every semester I hear from students who often decry the lack of technology usage in previous online classes. I feel it important for instructors to learn one or two new technologies per semester to incorporate into their classes.
6. Live and personal. Who said that just because a program is asynchronous, that you can’t include live webinar events? These events can be optional to attend at the scheduled time, but can be recorded for later viewing by students who missed it or want a second go-round. I have been conducting live sessions for several years, and invariably students are very positive about this option which allows them to see and hear the instructor live, ask questions, hear responses from other students, and be kept up-to-date with both assignments and course content. The vast majority of online professors do not avail themselves of these free, simple webinar tools that can add so much to a class.
5. Constantly improve your online course. I feel this is true for all teaching, but especially online teaching. A recent blog post (link here) traces the evolution of the capstone course that I teach. I am always looking for new teaching approaches, better instructional tools, and dynamic materials for my class. I actually look forward to trying new things in class and even make mid-course corrections when needed. These improvements keep the course fresh and my interest in teaching it high.
4. Learn from others in the field. This past week we had a Hybrid Teaching Showcase in my Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). Three professors who went through our faculty cohort for hybrid/online instruction presented their class to colleagues and others in the college community. By listening to their approaches, I was able to pick up three good ideas to use in my online class — this semester. Such forums, conferences, and even blogs like this, are a constant source of ideas and inspiration.
3. Take a break. Teaching online courses can be labor intensive and therefore require a lot of work. If you can, taking a semester off from teaching online can restore perspective and balance. You may even return with renewed enthusiasm for the task at hand. My break is during the summers. I never teach during the summer, yet with my full-time job in faculty development, always have my foot in traditional teaching modes and methods.
2. Reach out to students. This semester, I tried something that was recommended to me many years ago, but I never attempted: I called my students. At agreed-upon times, I had about a 20-30 minute phone conversation with all (six) students in my capstone course. With a small class this is certainly doable, but please consider it in larger online classes also. The connection with students, feedback about the course, and insights into their lives, was well worth the extra time involved. Generally students appreciate the effort as it demonstrates caring for them as people and interest in their success. Try it and you may find it is one of the best time investments you can make as an online instructor.
1. Use a learning contract. Although this may seem a bit on the formal side, such a document (you may also call it an “agreement”) signed by students can eliminate a lot of misunderstandings regarding instructor expectations. I have included a Student_Contract that I have used in a previous class. There is nothing that quite focuses the attention of a person than having to sign a contract of any sort. Some instructors make drafting such a document an activity of their class. In any case, it would include the major requirements of the course and your specific expectations of students in the class.
So, my Top Ten List is complete — until the next one. I hope it has served the purpose of having you reflect on your online course, and making it the best it can be.