Teaching Online Essentials

By Michelle Estes, EdD, ET, ABD Director of Professional Learning at Paradigm Education Solutions

In her advice guide, “How to Be a Better Online Teacher,” a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, Flower Darby, shares 10 essential principles and practices to teaching online. While I do some of these myself in the online courses I teach, these certainly offer ways for me to think about what else I can be doing to reach my students and keep them engaged. Perhaps you’ll find a few helpful tips in here as well.

#1 Show Up to Class

As in the classroom, online teaching requires the instructor to show up. Come fully prepared and ready to address a myriad of questions from students. I show up early and stay late to ensure those who need the extra help can get it. Block out times for virtual office hours and create a schedule to ensure you’re actively involved and present. Your students will see this and in turn be more likely to be as well.

#2 Be Yourself

Being yourself is the most important practice that needs to be considered. I enjoy teaching in person because of the opportunity to interact with students and share my passion for teaching technology. I also enjoy the performative aspect feeding off the energy in the room. In an online classroom, being yourself can get lost in translation. And, since written content is inevitably part of any online course, I would encourage you to strive to use your unique voice in your writing through creating mini-lectures and through weekly announcements. This gives you an opportunity to write these in such a way that your true self can be conveyed, even with the use of technology.

#3 Put Yourself in Their Shoes

It has always been important for me to have a trusted colleague evaluate my online classes as well as experienced online-faculty members or campus instructional designers. Even with my years of experience, I am pleasantly surprised at what they see that I could not see. It’s great to get their feedback and advice for any necessary changes. We all know students should know exactly what you are teaching and what they are supposed to do as a result. After teaching the same class several times, you quickly find out that the best way to improve your course is to put yourself in your students’ shoes and strive for clarity each time they have a question in the course.

#4 Organize Course Content Intuitively

I find that including students and getting their opinion on how they perceive themselves moving through the course content and activities can make a difference in my overall course design. It is also important to have a tech-savvy colleague available to see it from a newcomer’s perspective.

#5 Add Visual Appeal

You don’t have to be a graphic designer to enhance course appearance. A little attention to presentation goes a long way. In my experience, students prefer simple amounts of information and including images and short videos whenever possible. To meet all of your students’ needs, I would encourage you to work with your local instructional designer and disability-resources specialist for help with accessibility.

#6 Explain Your Expectations

I learned this principle very quickly after being an online student myself for several years. Online students typically work by themselves. They often can’t ask for, or receive, clarification in the moment when they first encounter a topic or situation that is challenging. That is why it’s important that assignment expectations and instructions are clearly explained. I recommend aiming for a balance between thorough and digestible providing as much meaningful support as you can so that students don’t have to guess what you want them to do.

#7 Scaffold Learning Activities

Real-time interactions are limited in online courses unless you find a way to use technology to connect with your students. Web-conferencing with my students has become a key method of engagement with my students. It presents opportunities to give your students incremental feedback, so they knew whether or not they are on the right track. This type of scaffolded learning activity can really make a difference in their motivation to learn.

#8 Provide Examples

All teachers have experienced a time when a student raises his or her hand and says he or she doesn’t understand a particular concept. You have to find another way to explain it. Providing a variety of examples and explanations helps learners grasp the information in a way that makes the most sense to them. When teaching online, these examples become even more crucial. Online learners benefit from multiple explanations of difficult concepts, increasing their confidence and motivation to learn.

#9 Make Class an Inviting, Pleasant Place to Be

When I first started teaching online, I struggled with this principle. When you teach in person, you do a lot of things to help students feel welcome and comfortable in the classroom. You greet students. Smile. Make eye contact. Answer questions. You show your support in countless ways. Even when the physical classroom was not particularly attractive, I was able to improve the atmosphere to make it more pleasant and therefore more conducive to learning. I had to apply that same principle to my online classes. It’s exciting to see that when I make my online class inviting and pleasant, students want to show up and learn.

#10 Commit to Continuous Improvement

A hallmark of good teaching is the desire to keep getting better at it. One must invest a little time and energy into developing as an online teacher. I would encourage you to continue in your professional development and participate in annual workshops and conferences, join book-discussion groups, and subscribe to teaching-related newsletters, such as Faculty Focus and The Chronicle’s Teaching Newsletter to expand your knowledge. These types of activities have helped make me the online teacher I am today and ensure I enjoy the online classroom.

In summary, to improve your online teaching practice, my recommendation is to start small. Choose one thing to focus on at a time and continue making changes to your course. Always strive to get better for the sake of your online students’ learning and achievement. Student success has always been a priority to me and with the help of these principles and practices, I continue to find excitement in teaching online for years to come.

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