Online Teaching: A Learning Journey

-By Mark Prestopnik, Educational Technology Instructional Technologist

Teaching OnlineIn my decade at Duquesne University, online learning has been one consistent thing that I have been a part of. As a graduate student, I completed most of my courses online. After graduation, I supported instructors and learned the art of teaching online from faculty mentors such as Dr. Jim Wolford-Ulrich, Dr. Judith Boettcher, and a host of other online faculty pioneers. As the years went on, and I developed my understanding, I have had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for a handful of courses, and then ultimately to co-instruct and create two courses built from scratch. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to work with faculty members who had never taught online before and were looking for direction in teaching adult and professional students online. I’d like to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned from my online learning and teaching journey that I think will be helpful to you as online and blended learning become more prevalent in higher education.

Getting Started: Thinking it Through

There are a number of instructional design models that you could consult as you begin your thinking. Expert instructional designers within Educational Technology are readily available to guide you and simplify the process for you, so it is best to not get bogged down in the finer details as you begin. Instead, start by working backwards. Determine exactly the key learning objectives to be targeted. From there, begin to consider resources that you might use to get students from introduction to mastery of the learning objectives. Do not get trapped by one singular approach. A benefit of teaching and learning is the variety of methods in both delivery of content and in assessment. As students prefer certain styles of learning, instructors undoubtedly find different styles of teaching that they prefer. Furthermore, based on topical content and module to module content, strategies may also shift in their applicability and effectiveness.

Start out Simple: Focus on Clarity

The first time an instructor teaches online, I like to encourage them to be creative, but also to have an implementation plan in mind, and to be realistic with what you can take on. Online learning leaves less room for clerical mistakes, such as ambiguous directions, incorrect dates, broken links, and other impediments which might be less burdensome as supplements to traditional classroom learning. In online learning, one must think of this as your communication to students, and focus on building a foundation of clarity, before reaching out into more bold endeavors and learning methodologies. You would be careful to not stand in front of a traditional classroom and deliver incorrect information or direction to students. In the same way, be clear, concise and careful in how you present information to your online students. Although email and discussion thread posts in our culture have become venues where a casual and informal tone is often taken, the role of the online instructor must be to elevate the discourse and keep the focus on the learning process. Modeling appropriate behavior for your students is achieved when you place high value on communication and strive to raise the level of conversation above that of an informal chat, to a highly engaged dialogue of ideas.

Engagement and Communication are Key

Department chairs and instructors have relayed to me that their Student Evaluation Surveys (SESs) have revealed that online students’ best experiences are those where their instructors were engaged, and became an active player in the student learning process. Students remember the instructors who helped them struggle through difficult concepts, challenged them to expand their thinking, and genuinely cared about the students’ overall level of comprehension and achievement. You might remark, these are the same values that are important for face-to-face instruction; that is completely true! There may be a temptation to find anonymity in an online course and let your learners find their own way through the content. In the online world, there’s a greater need for instructors to be proactive in that regard and work from the early stages to build connection with students. These factors also play into student retention, so your administrator and academic advisors will appreciate your efforts.

Finding Your Voice

Research indicates that students feel more connected and respond better when they hear their instructor’s voice each week. Do not be intimidated. This does not necessarily mean that you must provide a video or audio lecture each week, or hold synchronous sessions with your students each week. Your communication could be a quick recap of the previous week’s discussion, your highlighting of a key concept for the week, or a short introduction of the upcoming week. Regularly checking in with your students and showing presence is key to the learning process, yet does not need to be overly complex to be meaningful. The Educational Technology team provides regular trainings and consultations on the use of basic tools within Blackboard, as well as the newly acquired web conferencing tool GoToTraining and screen capture tool MyMediasite.

Set Clear Expectations

Be explicit with guidelines. If you expect students to “participate in an asynchronous discussion” each week, this means vastly different things from student to student. I encourage faculty to set guidelines for the number of posts, as well as how frequently students log in and participate in the discussion. On first blush, it might sound like too many rules, but trust me, this structure and expectations setting early on is in everyone’s best interest, and will avoid potential issues down the line, that will need to be addressed anyway.

Check with your administrator on the expectations regarding online synchronous participation. Some programs of study may require weekly real-time events, whereas others may ask instructors to make those events optional. In the latter case, office hours and project discussions are good reasons for meetings that will allow students to gain additional information and learning, while not punishing students who don’t participate. Further, all instructors are encouraged to record synchronous web conferencing events for later playback by students. This helps not only students who were unable to attend, but students who wish to review sessions for key points of information.

Teaching and Learning Online: The Path Forward

Online learning is a fun world that is different from face-to-face learning. In an age of efficiency seeking, and a desire for accessible information at your fingertips, online learning is incredibly attractive to consumers of education. Adult and professional students crave the convenience that it allows. Student athletes and deployed service members appreciate the ability to stay on schedule with their studies while other commitments take them away from campus. At the same time, students now expect an engaging online learning experience that is just as meaningful as if it were held in a classroom. The challenge is now upon us, as providers of high quality education, to continue to meet students’ expectations and provide them with the learning opportunities that they desire.

I encourage you to branch out and explore online learning. Talk with your colleagues and begin the conversation. Chances are, more people have taught or taken online courses than you may have imagined. What are your experiences in online teaching and learning? Educational Technology would like to hear from you. Leave us a comment below. We also encourage you to view our calendar for training opportunities, schedule a consultation to look at your course or discuss ideas you are considering, and also to join our Teaching with Technology group, where we explore and discuss trends in teaching. The exciting thing about the online teaching and learning frontier is that new applications are being produced constantly. The excited spirit you bring to the online environment is contagious, and your students notice. Learning can no doubt be intimidating, but as you know, it can be fun and rewarding at the same time. My learning journey continues as I engage in new projects and initiatives with Educational Technology. I hope to meet you along the way on yours!

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2 thoughts on “Online Teaching: A Learning Journey

  1. Thank you, Mark. This is really helpful. It’s so important for faculty to have a few key points to think about in the transition to online teaching and learning.

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