It may seem that learning online should be (or could be) as effective as traditional classroom learning. In almost every online class, resources and materials are provided for the students, there are asynchronous (and occasionally synchronous) discussions, and then assessments are given to determine if progress has been made with meeting the required learning objectives. Students aren’t required to sit through a lecture and instead they can study at their own convenience. But important elements are missing in a virtual classroom, such as face to face interactions that provide visual and verbal cues, and that makes the distance factor a significant challenge.
So what can an instructor do to ensure that learning occurs in a virtual environment? Most online classes contain a fairly standard structure, even with varying learning management systems, and many online schools provide pre-programmed courses for instructors to use that are developed with established learning objectives, course materials, and a variety of learning activities. However, creating a course and adding the content does not automatically guarantee that students are going to be engaged and learn something because of their involvement. Learning is influenced by the conditions an instructor creates and the interactions they have with their students. Most experienced online instructors know that learning is a process that must be nurtured and teaching is not just a function to complete.
Students and a Virtual Classroom
Consider the students’ experience when they first enter a virtual classroom. They need to navigate through the classroom, find the required materials, and become highly motivated to keep up with the discussions and assignments. Most learning management systems have evolved over time to make the user experience easier but the ability of a student to learn in this environment requires more than how they are able to use technological tools. Students need to be able to feel connected to the class, believe the course will meet their specific academic and/or career needs, obtain assistance when needed, and develop meaningful relationships with their instructors. What can hinder this process and reduce the potential for learning is the reliance on written words as the primary form of communication. The classroom can then become almost mechanical in nature for students and discourage them from being fully engaged and working towards peak performance.
Instructors and a Virtual Classroom
Instructors have many responsibilities that begin with knowing the subject matter they are required to teach and then they must manage the classroom efficiently and effectively. This includes completing the required facilitation duties, participating in discussions, providing feedback, and managing relationships. But one of the most important responsibilities is creating an environment that is conducive to learning. There are factors that can work against the instructor, from a poorly designed course to a lack of engaging resources, which cannot be easily corrected. Even if the classroom has been perfectly constructed an instructor must still be actively present and proactively working to create a positive experience for students. It is easy for students to disengage from an online class and if the instructor is not closely monitoring conditions, and doesn’t notice a student who is withdrawing, it may be too late to re-engage them back into the class. This speaks to the nature of learning, which can be easy for some students and challenging for others – especially if they lack fundamental academic skills.
5 Strategies to Create Optimal Conditions
I have been actively involved in online faculty development and I have discovered that a majority of instructors can effectively manage their class and meet the required expectations. What I have also found is that approximately 25% of the instructors I’ve worked with perform above and beyond the minimal requirements, just as I have always tried to do as an online educator, to exceed the minimum requirements and create an engaging environment. While it may seem that these strategies should be used by all instructors, some prefer to complete only what is required and while that is acceptable it does not lead to an optimal learning experience.
#1. Develop Engaging Discussion Posts:
Most online classes have some form of discussions, typically each week of the class. The requirements for instructors usually involve a specific number of days that they are to required respond to students and the quality of those posts may or may not be specifically stated in their contract. What an instructor’s discussion response can do is to engage students in the topic, expand upon what they have written, prompt critical thinking and a deeper understanding of the course topics, and help students connect the topics to real-world situations and issues. The challenge is taking the time to craft responses that accomplish these goals and it requires being able to post something more than a quick reactive response. It is helpful to acknowledge something that each student has written, build from it, and conclude with a question that prompts their intellectual curiosity. When a post is substantive and engaging the dialogue with students is likely to continue.
#2. Be a Facilitator, Educator, and Teacher:
The work of an online instructor has been referred to by many names, including the facilitator, educator, and teacher. While some online schools prefer the word facilitator, the work that an instructor performs involves much more than facilitating a process. A teacher is someone who can help students acquire the necessary academic skills and have the patience necessary to guide and direct them as they work towards the improvement of their developmental needs. An educator is someone who understands the basics of adult learning and knows some of the theories that can inform their work. As instructors develop their knowledge base about adult education they are transformed and become an educator. Some faculty are hired because of their subject matter expertise but that does not automatically guarantee they can be effective as an instructor. When an instructor is able to facilitate, educate, and teach, their effectiveness in the classroom becomes apparent in all aspects of their work.
#3. Provide Feedback That Prompts Reflection:
Instructors know that students need more than a letter grade to prompt their continued development and this aligns with the premise of self-directed adult learners who want to be involved in the learning process. Students want to know why they earned the grade received. If they use grades as their primary source of motivation it becomes important to teach them to focus on more than their grades and instead understand the meaning of those grades and what can be learned from it. To do this the feedback needs to address the content of what was written, along with the mechanics, and be done in a manner that encourages their progress. What some instructors rely upon, typically when there is little time available, is canned comments or quickly written commentary. Feedback is most effective when it causes students to become further interested in the topics and more importantly when they reflect upon their work and academic progress. When students are engaged in the feedback process they are more likely to be responsive to what their instructor provides and learn from it.
#4. Be Actively Present and Engaged:
There is a misconception that an instructor cannot help students if they cannot see them. But an instructor can bridge the distance gap and create conditions that are conducive to learning. What I’ve learned through my online teaching experience, and background working with faculty, is that students can easily disengage from the class and if it isn’t noticed right away it may be too late to re-engage them. There are many reasons why students disengage and it may not be easy to know exactly why when working in a virtual classroom For example when students become frustrated or lose motivation they may begin to slowly withdraw and if an instructor is actively present they will notice the absence of those students. What I’ve also observed is that student performance is often directly influenced by the level of engagement of the instructor. An instructor’s virtual presence is also a social presence that builds a sense of community among students that helps to keep them engaged and interested in the class.
#5. Develop Effective Communication Techniques:
The primary form of communication in an online classroom consists of written posts and messages. Interactions and relationships in a virtual class are also based on written words. A challenge that this presents is that messages and posts are then subject to interpretation, along with a perceived tone and intent of the message posted. Since messages are sent asynchronously it means that the instructor is not present to ensure the message was interpreted correctly. While written words are not the most effective method of communication it is still possible for students to develop a perception about the instructor’s disposition towards helping them.
What this means is that anything an instructor decides to post needs to be done from a position of care and concern, rather than from feelings of frustration or emotional response or reaction. It can be helpful to create posts first, perhaps in a Word document, and that will help to manage the mechanics and tone of what is written. If a negative emotional reaction is experienced due to something a student has posted it would be better to delay any form of response until it can be approached from a logical and rational perspective. This helps to develop productive working relationships and model effective communication for students to follow.
Teach Students the Potential for Distance Learning
When instructors are actively present and engaged in their online courses it helps to bridge the distance gap with their students and it can also teach them the powerful potential of distance learning, along with the value of education. An instructor’s involvement, which is their active online presence, influences how students respond to the virtual classroom environment, how well they perform, engage in the class, and stay motivated. Online teaching is not just a function and a matter of checking duties off of a list. The work that an instructor does, as an educator, teacher, and facilitator, also determines how effective the learning process occurs and development of conditions that are conducive to learning need to be nurtured from week to week, until the class concludes. Once a new class starts, the need for developing the same type of environment begins again. Just as learning is never a one-time event, so too is the art and skill of online teaching. Students will learn best when they are in an environment that encourages them to do so and this is in direct control of their instructors.