For years, online learning has held a lot of promise for educators and training departments. As we’ve seen over the past 20 years, some of what passes as online learning can be classified as thoughtful and engaging, while other online experiences lack the care and attention needed to enable all learners to succeed. The quality of a learning experience is not dependent on the medium of the experience, whether it’s online, or face-to-face, or uses video or short-wave radio. The quality is dependent on how well the experience is designed. As an instructor responsible for that design, you may ask yourself, what should be my main considerations when I look to upgrade to a more modern teaching and learning approach?
First, it’s important to remember, teaching and learning comes in a variety of forms, some more engaging and higher in quality than others. What makes a learning experience of higher quality has been studied and debated for many years now. If you’re new to these considerations, Congratulations! A lot of work has been done to make the transition easier. There are plenty of books, articles in pedagogical periodicals, newsletters, conferences, and online resources available. This is also a great opportunity to take advantage of your institution’s center for instruction or other professional development resources. Educating yourself on what works and what doesn’t is one of the best places to start. (including reading this article!)
Meet learners where they are
Another important quality principle to consider when moving your course online is to meet learners where they are. Not all students who enter our door are as prepared to be as successful as we would like. This requires us to rethink how we teach if we intend to meet their needs. Ungraded pre-tests and quizzes can be used to see what learners already know about the content you’re covering or about to cover next.
It’s important to remember that all students need your help in learning how to learn new material. Remember the first time you were introduced in class to a concept that blew your mind as a student? Remember thinking, how am I ever going to manage to learn this? What’s the trick? While you may not have signed up to teach a vocabulary lesson in your subject, it may be critical for students to get one for them to be better at understanding the information you’re presenting. This is why it’s important to meet students where they are, so you can help them get to where you want them to be.
It cannot be emphasized enough, the importance of keeping communication channels open with your learners. Since you’re at a physical distance, students need to know how and where to ask questions. Posting clear instructions or an FAQ in your course or syllabus on how to direct questions and inquiries will go a long way in bridging the transactional distance. Online office hours can be useful as a means for providing a clear communication point with learners as well as a specific thread in a discussion forum dedicated to learner questions and concerns.
Course management is a task that’s incredibly important and easily overlooked. College students, no matter if they’re online or face to face, need to know where they are and what’s happening in their courses. Clearly communicating the syllabus, and expectations associated with readings, activities, assignments, discussions, and so on, needs to be a top priority when developing an online learning experience. My father was a Navy captain’s son, and he instilled in me a saying that I always use: proper, prior planning prevents p!@# poor performance. The seven P’s as they say. And it works. Planning your moves and engagements ahead of time helps facilitate the learning process for you and your students.
Adopt different instructional methods
There is a tremendous amount of good literature online about active learning, learner-centered teaching, and supporting high levels of quality interaction and engagement. Over the years I’ve learned to use what works best for me and my learners’ needs. When moving online be sure and take advantage of its highly visual nature. I use a lot of slides to tell my stories and convey content, followed by specific activities that have students analyzing, comparing, assessing, and applying the knowledge they are in the process of acquiring. Remember, as the instructor, you are modeling the skills, knowledge, and behaviors you want your students to adopt.
Use assessments proactively
Most students today are used to checking their grades online. It is important to make sure your grading policies and procedures are super clear. Take the time to explain how your system works and provide examples to be as clear as you can. Remind students how grades are used as a means to uncover what learners know and to inform the instructor how well they are teaching the content.
It is understandable to feel overwhelmed when adopting new strategies, techniques, and media. However, it is important to remember what drew us to this profession in the first place. For most of us, it was a passion that we held for our subject area, a desire to know everything about it, to study every angle, every corner, every detail. We are so moved by our subject matter, we even sport the desire to teach others about it.
In higher education, we have a chance to teach, learn, research, and influence our discipline, which in turn shapes our larger world. When it comes to teaching and learning, we have the research and we know what works best. Today’s successful college instructor has never been better positioned to meet the needs of every learner. Embracing the challenge and taking steps like those mentioned above can empower you and your learners for generations to come.