We live in an unprecedented time with higher education being disrupted, as traditional classes are being moved online, at least for the time being. Whether or not this will continue for any length of time remains to be seen. This has occurred at an interesting time for the field of distance learning as many of the for-profit schools have closed, and the growth of new online schools has slowed. The number of online schools growing is limited, and competition comes from traditional schools offering online classes.
With a move of traditional classes to an online platform, there is a challenge for many educators to adapt to a virtual environment. Those educators who teach in this environment already, such as myself, are already accustomed to creating a virtual presence. However, while online teaching can be rewarding for those who can adapt to it, there are many demands for instruction in this environment, and it can be quite challenging at times. Whether you are new to online teaching or have extensive experience, you will find one of the most important measurements is the end-of-course student evaluation. You will also be evaluated by completion of the required facilitator duties, which typically includes participation in class discussions and feedback for learning activities.
To help you prepare for the requirements of online teaching, there are critical best practices you can implement to ensure you are effectively and substantively engaged in your class. These are the product of my work as an online educator, along with my work in faculty development, having been reviewed by the strictest of standards and applying these standards to faculty I’ve reviewed. You can use these best practices as a checklist for the development of your own online teaching practice, regardless of how long you’ve taught online classes.
Online Instructor Essentials
How you manage your time and the weekly schedule you create will ultimately determine how successful you are as an online educator. The two tasks which are going to take the most amount of time are class discussions and feedback. If you do not allow enough time for these tasks, and you fall behind, you are going to feel rushed when trying to complete what is required of you. The ultimate result is either going to be minimal participation, minimal feedback, or both. A feeling of being rushed may also show up in your disposition as well, if you become agitated when there is not enough time to complete the required tasks or deadlines are nearing. Your students will sense this, even in an online environment, as there are subtle cues which show up in the word choices used in online posts and messages.
Something else to consider is the contract you agree to when you become a faculty member and accept a class commitment. You need to take the time to review the faculty expectations, especially if you are new to the school, to make certain you know all details about performance requirements. Should you have any questions, it is best to contact your Department Chair or supervisor. The most critical timeline requirements involve responding to learner questions, regardless of how posted or sent. You will likely receive audits and/or performance reviews, and when you do, use these tools as a means of self-development to help you to continue to learn and grow.
Making a Transition: From Traditional to Online Teaching
For those who teach in a traditional classroom and now must teach online, there will be a learning curve which will happen quickly. The first adaptation is becoming used to the technology platform or LMS, and discovering the technological tools which can enhance the learning experience. The most significant challenge for traditional educators, who are not used to teaching online, is interacting with learners who are not visibly present. The lack of visual cues can be overcome at times if a webinar is integrated into the class program. However, for most of the class, it is functioning without a live class and visual or verbal cues. Now the words posted become the primary form of communication and this makes it much more challenging to assess the intent or meaning of what is being stated, especially if a learner has challenges with academic writing.
What an online educator must eventually learn, often through time and practice, is he or she is the one who must keep the class engaged, not the course materials. If a learner is not actively participating or is not present in class, it is the instructor who must work to re-engage the learner, and do so within a timely manner, as a disengaged learner may soon become dropped from the course. This means learners are looking for, and often expecting, their instructors to be highly engaged and present in the course, and responsive to their needs. An instructor cannot log onto their class once or twice a week and hope this is sufficient. There must be ongoing and active involvement to sustain an online class, and work on the developmental of the needs of all learners.
6 Critical Best Practices for Online Teaching: Be Prepared
What follows are best practices you can implement now, regardless of the length of time you’ve taught online. If you have implemented some or all of them already, you can use it as a checklist to remind yourself of what’s important for your work as an educator.
Best Practice #1. Become the Support Your Learners Need
When learners enroll in a class, they are likely aware of their deficits already. When you begin the process of feedback and note those deficiencies, it may only serve to further confirm they are not capable of succeeding in their academic studies. This is why you must take a supportive approach to your feedback and the instructional approach used as you interact with your learners. Consider as well the fact you and your learners are separated by distance, or as I call it, the distance factor. Your learners are going to read what you post and share before you ever have an opportunity to explain it, which means everything you write needs to have a supportive tone to it. How you write, along with what you write, can and will determine the future of the learner, and the effort he or she will continue to make in your class. Find whatever way you can to be the support your learners need by taking time to read what they post and write, and acknowledge them as learners.
Best Practice #2. Develop a Mindset Which Encourages Positivity
You have likely read about nurturing a growth mindset in learners, and this can occur even in your adult learners, provided the conditions in an online class are conducive to do so. This is not just a result of a beautiful LMS or technological tools, it occurs when an instructor has a disposition and mindset which encourages positivity. This means you have become focused on your learners and you implement strategies to encourage and uplift them. In my post, Discover 5 Essential Learner-Centered Strategies For Online Instructors, I discussed my use of videos for feedback. I also use short videos to encourage learners as well, along with small posters I create to uplift them.
There will be times when you feel challenged, especially when a learner sends an email and vents their frustration in an unpleasant manner. The most effective strategy to take when you have a negative reaction is to write in a Word document, then step away for a few minutes to regain your balance. When you return, you will likely be able to focus once again and better assist the learner. When you create an environment which feels positive, from the perspective of the learner, you have managed to accomplish another important goal: You have helped humanize the learning experience. This also helps to take the distance factor out of distance learning.
Best Practice #3. Be a Leader in Academic Writing
Many educators are not hired because they are professional writers. Regardless of the academic writing skill level you possess, consider this to be an ongoing area of development. I use a Word document to develop my discussion posts, to help ensure I’ve managed the mechanics. What you want to remember is that your learners are watching what you post in discussions and write as you provide feedback. If there are numerous academic writing errors, this may send a mixed message if your feedback points out academic writing errors the learner has made. If your school offers resources within an online writing center, this may be of benefit for you and any learner who needs further development. If these resources are not immediately available for you, there are many online resources you can find. You want to lead the way with academic writing and show your learners you take it just as seriously as you enforce it when feedback is provided to them.
Best Practice #4. Become a Master of Your Course Materials
What I’ve learned over time about course preparation is the need to learn my course materials. When a course is pre-developed for you, it may seem all is needed is to join the discussions and participate, and then provide feedback based upon the written rubric. However, this is far from what is required for course preparation. Every instructor must review the course materials thoroughly and completely, just as a starting point, in order to be able to participate in class discussions in a meaningful manner and provide substantive feedback. More importantly, ongoing development means reading and finding resources related to the course topics, as the use of supplemental sources will help provide context for your discussion posts and the feedback you develop. When you become the master of your course materials, you are creating additional learning opportunities for your learners.
Best Practice #5. Be Determined to Become a Lifelong Learner
As you are interacting with your learners, and you remember why you love to teach, you are encouraging them to develop a love of learning. If you want to become even more effective in this approach, you can continue to cultivate your own determination to become a lifelong learner. While you may not be a learner now, you can find professional development opportunities of your own. Many academic institutions encourage or require educators to publish, and this presents a very good opportunity to conduct research into areas you are interested in studying. There are many affiliations you can also join and likely find webinars to attend. What I’ve done as a Modern Educator is to write online articles and blog posts, as a means of continuing my research and writing, even if I’m not publishing in an official academic capacity. It still allows me to share my knowledge and expertise, while connecting with other educators, sharing ideas, information, and strategies.
Best Practice #6. Establish a Standard of Excellence
Over time you will evaluate and refine your online instructional practice. It will be the result of what has been successful, the strategies which have not served you well, lessons you have learned (some the right way and others by mistake), and most important of all, feedback you have received from learners in many different forms. Typically the feedback I learn most from occurs within the classroom, as I try new strategies and receive replies in response. There is a high standard I have established for myself. At the beginning of my work as an educator I was very hard on myself when I made mistakes. But now with time and practice under my belt, I know both successes and mistakes have served me well. It is not possible to become a perfect online educator without having taught for some time and even then, you still must be open to learning and development as learner needs evolve. I can state with certainty the needs of learners today are different than they were 15 years ago when I first got my start. But having a standard of excellence gives me a sense of accountability to myself and makes certain I am working to the best of my abilities.
I well understand there are many inherent challenges associated with online teaching, and most are related to time and a lack of direct contact with learners. Yet I’ve found it can be a very rewarding experience because I am able to get to know my learners better than I ever could in a traditional classroom. This may sound unusual to someone who has never taught online, who sees learners face-to-face, but my perspective comes from being able to interact with each and everyone of them in a discussion, getting to know them through weekly learning activities, and engaging with them through direct communication. While I am separated from my learners, I have found tools to bridge this gap and replace the distance with a virtual presence. Now with these six critical strategies, I can further assure learners I am there to support them and their progress in a nurturing, positive, and supportive manner. If you can take this approach yourself, perhaps you and your learners will find online learning to be a viable and enjoyable form of education.