10 Tips for Effective Online Teaching
Last spring, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education moved en masse from bricks to clicks, migrating teaching and learning to a fully online environment. The reviews were somewhat less than favorable. Students uniformly hated remote learning, and faculty weren't exactly thrilled about it either.
Given how the spring semester unfolded — with students being sent home abruptly and instructors scrambling to modify courses for online consumption — it's not surprising that the virtual university experiment failed.
Not that online education isn't already commonplace. In fall 2019, about 2.4 million undergraduates, or 15% of college students nationwide, studied entirely online, with another 3.6 million taking one or more online courses while studying on campus. So while the pandemic-induced rush to virtual learning might have created a backlash, evidence suggests that the industry is slowly moving in that direction.
In fall 2019, about 2.4 million undergraduates, or 15% of college students nationwide, studied entirely online. … Evidence suggests that the industry is slowly moving in that direction [of virtual learning].
And that's fine with me. I wasn't an early adopter per se, but I've been teaching online for 13 years now, and I've become a convert. Like many academics, I started teaching right after earning my doctorate. It was in a traditional classroom, where I taught writing. My teaching style modeled that of the professors I had in college and graduate school.
Six years later, I was offered the chance to teach online. Not having ever taken an online course, I had no frame of reference for how to run one. I had to learn on the fly.
I've continued learning ever since, and here I share some of those insights to help faculty new to the online environment.
These tips don't address specific aspects of instructional technology because learning management systems differ. Instead, I offer more philosophical reflections on what makes for an engaging, productive, and memorable learning experience. Also, these suggestions relate specifically to asynchronous education, not real-time Zoom or Google Meet classrooms.
Here are my top 10 tips — plus a bonus — for effective online teaching.
Top 10 Tips for Effective Online Teaching
1. Become Familiar With Online Learning Tools
Learning management systems such as Canvas and Blackboard are highly intuitive but can be intimidating at first. Use the online faculty tutorials provided by your college. See how information is organized.
Use the online faculty tutorials provided by your college [and] see how information is organized.
My courses (on Canvas) are divided into weekly modules, each focusing on one topic and containing readings and multimedia materials, discussion forums, and drop boxes for assignments, where applicable.
Consider how you want the course to unfold, too. Will you make all discussion forums open at the beginning of the term or the beginning of each week or module? I chose the latter to keep students focused on the topics at hand. How are grades managed? How do you use Zoom conference or other real-time features for synchronous sessions?
2. Determine How to Solve Problems
Students will come to you with concerns beyond the class itself, and it helps if you can point them in the right direction. Resources include IT support, the registrar, the financial aid office, the library, academic style guides, and online tutoring and writing assistance.
Some of this information might be in the syllabus template, so familiarize yourself with what's available to students.
3. Facilitate Introductions and Connections
As the course begins — or even before, if possible — create a discussion forum in which you introduce yourself and ask students to do the same. Use icebreaker questions to find out where students live, their class year, their major, any clubs or organizations they're part of, their hobbies and interests, and so forth.
Some students might know one another and form instant kinships. Ask if this is their first online class experience, and let them know that it's yours. Empathy cuts both ways. I always create a forum outside the course modules called "student lounge" where classmates can communicate among themselves on topics such as college life, other courses they're considering or have taken, extracurriculars, internships and career options, graduate programs, and even what's new on Netflix.
4. Clarify Expectations
Communicate your expectations straight away, and continue to do so throughout the course. What are the intended course outcomes? What kinds of assignments will students be responsible for? How often should students post in the forums? What constitutes a good discussion post? What kinds of student collaborations, if any, are required? How are grades determined?
All of this might be detailed in the syllabus, but don't assume students will read it. Also, let them know how you want assignments submitted. I prefer Word documents so I can use the track changes tool and insert comments. It's a personal preference. Even though I've communicated this often in each course, students invariably submit papers as PDF files, which just burns my toast. You can't remind them enough.
5. Be Present and Active
How one defines "active" is a matter of interpretation, but I reject the facilitator role normally associated with online teaching and instead embrace a leadership position. I don't simply start students down a discussion path and nudge them along from time to time; I stay with them every step of the way. The more engaged you are, the more engaged they are.
I respond to almost every post, challenging students when necessary to expound on their comments or consider alternative views. At the beginning of each new module, I write a post or record a video reflecting on the previous week's discussions, outlining what's on tap for the coming week, and reminding students of imminent assignments and deadlines. Words of appreciation and encouragement go a long way.
6. Be Available
Questions and concerns arise frequently, and students can become frustrated if answers aren't readily available. I respond quickly to emails and forum posts related to assignments, discussions, grading, and other course issues. I even share my cell number so students can text or call with a pressing matter.
Some faculty consider a weekly module to consist of five or six days, but I choose not to take a day off. I'm online in the course every day. Jumping on for 10 minutes on a Saturday to answer questions can make all the difference for students.
7. Engage Everyone
You know those students — the ones who hide in the back row, heads down, avoiding eye contact, never volunteering an opinion, seemingly checked out. Well, there's no back row online.
When a student goes a few days without logging on or posting, I reach out to [them].
It's easy to quantify and track each student's engagement, and given that posting activity typically constitutes a considerable percentage of the grade, class participation is critical. When a student goes a few days without logging on or posting, I reach out to see whether there's a problem.
If enrollment is a manageable size, I schedule a 15-minute one-on-one call with each student at some point in the term to discuss progress and concerns. Naturally, regular office hours, virtually speaking, are kept as well. Ultimately, if someone chooses not to participate, it's not because I haven't tried to engage them.
8. Encourage Peer Learning
Peer learning is a hallmark of online courses. When I respond to forum posts, I'll point out where students have conflicting views and ask them to defend their positions. Conversations often become quite animated, with classmates joining forces on either side of a debate.
Another common tactic involves having one or two students lead a forum each week, requiring them to assume the mantle of facilitator and prod discussion under the watchful eye of your continued oversight and guidance. Unlike in-person classroom discussions that last an hour or so, these conversations can run for days and drill down to a depth not often explored through traditional means.
9. Use Audio and Visual Multimedia
In-class teaching now typically includes some form of multimedia, from slideshows and infographics to PowerPoint decks and YouTube videos. With online teaching, taking advantage of such tools is paramount.
In your own presentations, don't hesitate to incorporate audio and video recordings to break up written communications. Likewise, complement readings with various multimedia sources (always double-checking links ahead of time) that appeal to students who learn in different ways. Students will often find pertinent information online that escaped your purview and share it with the class, leading others to fall into similar rabbit holes of knowledge.
10. Seek and Use Feedback
Course evaluations are standard fare and can be quite useful in evaluating what's working well and what's not, especially if you're new to online teaching. But such feedback will inform future courses you teach, not the current one.
A course Q&A forum allows students to ask questions about the course structure, assignments, and grades along the way and enables classmates to chime in. It's a real-time assessment of how things are going.
Andy Smith / Cultura / Getty Images
Bonus Tip: Have Fun
For both student and professor, staring at a screen in isolation can be daunting. Why not strive to make the experience enjoyable as well as educational? Infuse personality into your presentations and your presence. Use humor. Include links to some offbeat content every now and then.
You don't have to be a virtual vaudeville act, but if you seem like you're having a good time with the course, your students will too.
Feature Image: svetikd / E+ / Getty Images