Authored by Stacy Young, Associate Dean of Faculty, VHS Learning
In many ways, teaching in an online environment is very similar to teaching in a traditional classroom: Both require teachers to build relationships with students, give frequent (and meaningful) feedback, help students manage their time well, manage their own time well, and know when to step in and provide extra support for students as needed.
However, doing all of these things in an online environment is different and provides its own unique set of challenges. The ability for teachers to nurture relationships in an online classroom can be difficult because teachers and students do not have the immediate feedback through visual cues they would have in a face-to-face classroom. And because most of the communication in an online course happens in writing, it is especially important for educators to make sure their written words are not misconstrued.
Here are five keys to teaching effectively in an online course environment.
Instructors should communicate frequently with each student in an online environment, so that students feel like they are part of a learning community. This communication should start at the very beginning of the course, with teachers setting clear expectations and getting to know their students.
Getting to know individual students in order to build relationships with them can be challenging when a course does not meet face to face. One technique that can be effective is to have students complete a survey with information about themselves at the start of class. The survey can give teachers valuable insights into students’ interests, preferences, and experiences, so teachers can connect with students on a personal level throughout the course by relating content to or even just asking students about their interests, such as art, baseball, or hiking.
Teachers should also communicate consistently throughout the course and should check in with students often – providing substantive feedback on an assignment at least once a week – to keep students engaged and on track. Frequent communication is a key way to make sure students have the support they need to succeed.
Choose words carefully.
Teachers must be aware that the words they use can have a huge impact on students, especially in an online environment where tone is hard to read. Everyone has had an experience in which something they communicated in writing came across in a way that was not intended.
Online communications should be clear and unambiguous. One way to do this is to use a consistent format for all messages: Begin with a greeting, state your message plainly and carefully, and end with a closing. Do this for every communication; otherwise, what you think is a simple reply to a question might seem to the student as abrupt.
It is critical for online teachers to avoid using sarcasm or other language that can be misconstrued. Always use asset-based language, which focuses on a student’s strengths and offers support. If a student is behind in his or her work, instead of saying, “You do not complete your work on time,” a teacher using asset-based language might say, “It looks like you have had some challenges getting your work to me in a timely manner over the past few weeks, and I am wondering how we can work together to turn that around.” Language that avoids negatives or absolutes helps students feel that their teacher is approachable.
Give students structure.
Online learning offers more flexibility than a traditional classroom setting, but students still need structure to ensure that they are successful. Because students do not have daily homework assignments and do not see their teacher every day in an online course, it can be easy for them to mismanage their time and fall behind.
Online teachers who are involved in class discussions throughout the week and who encourage students to keep up with their assignments provide just enough structure to keep students on a successful path. Designing plans for students who need extra help with time management or prioritisation is a good idea, as is giving students checklists or target dates to keep them on track.
Be quick to offer support.
When you do not see students in person every day, it is important to pick up on signs they might be struggling – and act immediately to help them succeed. This is why an online teacher’s partnership with a student’s site coordinator – the school-based liaison who is the online teacher’s primary contact – is critical.
If students are struggling, teachers should reach out to them directly within private student-teacher communications, but teachers should also engage their site coordinators. If a student has not logged in, or is logging in but needs help completing assignments, the online teacher and site coordinator should work together to support that student as soon as a potential problem is identified.
Extenuating circumstances that prevent students from completing their work frequently arise in any course environment, and teachers must be flexible whether they are teaching online or in a traditional classroom. However, an online course brings additional challenges that require teachers to be flexible. For instance, when a course includes students from different geographic areas, students in one location might be affected by an event (like a hurricane, tornado, or other disaster) that does not affect others in the class.
Flexibility is especially important when teaching in a global learning environment. Something as simple as office hours requires flexibility when students live in very different time zones, and teachers might have to accommodate various religious observations.
Teachers who have never taught online sometimes think it will be easier or less time-consuming because they do not have to prepare daily assignments – but the truth is that it takes just as much time to teach an online class. Although online instruction brings its own set of unique challenges, these five strategies – along with creativity, a sense of humour, and being ready for the unexpected – can help make online courses successful for both teachers and their students.
About the Author:
Stacy Young is the Associate Dean of faculty for VHS Learning, a non-profit provider of online courses for middle and high schools. In this role, she oversees the training and support of VHS Learning instructors. She also teaches a four-week Online Teaching Methodologies course that is required for all VHS Learning instructors and is available to other teachers as well.
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