Tricks, Tips, and Sure-Fire Teaching Strategies: Secrets of the Successful Online Instructor Revealed!
By Errol Craig Sull
A Note from Errol: Gosh – wouldn’t it be nice if we could just fall into each of our distance learning courses and know each would be a brilliant tour de force on our part, with students enthusiastically rhapsodizing about the experience and our supervisors marveling at how fortunate they are to have us teaching for their school? Well, this is a nice dream – and that’s all it is.
Those of us who have taught online know that much effort needs to go into making the above come true – and even then, that effort requires constant tinkering, tweaking, and toning. But there are certain things each of us can do that will assure a spot in the Online Instructor’s Hall of Fame – if only in your students’ experiences (where it ultimately counts).
There are thousands of ideas, suggestions, bits of info, and insights distance learning instructors can offer on how to teach the “perfect” online course; several volumes of books would be needed to list them all. But there are commonalities, and what I’ve listed in this column are the ones that nearly every successful online instructor has in common – take away just one of these that you haven’t previously employed and your quality in the classroom will markedly improve. Please: Send me your suggestions – I’d like to offer a future column with only reader suggestions. Guaranteed.
Be a constant, timely, and upbeat presence in class. You are the umbilical cord connecting the computer course to your students, and it’s imperative that the cord be kept vibrant and throbbing; if not, your class will quickly wither. Since students cannot physically visit you in an office, they depend on you to keep them informed, to respond to their questions, and to be involved in the course. And what many online instructors forget is that this is really a 24/7 presence by you, not a traditional M-W-F or T-Th X number of minutes per week meeting with students. When students see you throughout the course, when they get upbeat messages and responses from you, and when all your postings are done in a timely manner, well, you’ve just aced three of the most important keys to running a successful online class.
Gather websites – both you and the students. A major factor in having a successful online class is keeping students engaged in the course; do this and they will better embrace the information taught and contribute more in Discussion and other such areas. One item that can help in this is a smart use of the Internet; done correctly this electronic behemoth can give your students a variety of info relating to the subject and in addition to required materials, provide fun and relaxation in the process, and provide added texture and richness to your course. There are two ways this can be done: Give students websites to visit on a weekly basis (do not post all at the beginning of the course – this takes away the weekly student anticipation you want to create!) that in some way relate to the course subject. These can be pure information, of course, but mix them up with animation, tongue-in-cheek articles, and pictures: these lighten up your course, making it a friendlier place to visit, while at the same time re-enforcing the course subject.
Posting these websites also shows you, as an instructor, really care about the course! Have students contribute websites. Here’s a little secret of sorts: students really enjoy adding something of value to the course that others will use! Asking students to contribute a few websites that relate to your subject and a few that are simply fun is a “win-win” for all involved: students benefit from the extra material and lightness, the contributors get more engaged in the class, and you have a class that is deeper in materials.
Use puzzles, games, and fun problems to cement the subject further. Oh, this is nothing but pure joy for the students – and it’s a great way to take yet another approach to highlight the course subject! These items result in keeping students enthusiastically engaged while continually teaching them. They are easy to find: the Internet, magazines, and books, and our knowledge can offer whimsy, mystery, and laughs as students use both critical thinking skills and components of the course in solving and maneuvering through these puzzles, games, and fun problems. Post them as additional course materials, make them part of a discussion, and include them in graded assignments – students are drawn to them, and they re-enforce the students’ understanding of what you teach.
Take a deep plunge into audio-visual. Since the advent of online learning, it has been common to find articles, texts (whole or part), and other print material posted somewhere in a class for students to read; these existed – and continue to exist – as either attachments or ready-to-read once a link is clicked. But as technology has advanced so have the possibilities of heightening the online learning experience by including audio-visual; these add an ongoing “sparkle” and freshness to the course, help keep students engaged, and work well in strengthening the online instructor-student rapport.
– Skype: A free online audio / visual “phone” that works great for student conferences
– YouTube and other such sites: Offer short videos and clips on a variety of subjects
– Movies and radio shows: Highlight parts or all of a course subject
– mp3 and related software: A great way to give students more personalized feedback on assignments and overviews on the week ahead
– Blogs: To keep students actively involved in a course, informally, throughout the life of the course.
Of course, Twitter, texting, and other such applications can also be used.
Be sure students use the school’s online tutor – An underused asset of online courses is the free tutoring program to which most students have access. Many students need more time than we can give them on an assignment simply because of our course and student loads; the online tutor (such as Smarthinking and other names) allows the student to submit an assignment in whole or part of an assignment, then will offer detailed feedback and explanation of the material. It is rare when a student does not feel the online tutor was beneficial, and this program often saves students from dropping courses and gives them new enthusiasm for learning in the online course.
Fully introduce students to their online library. Another resource worthy of more attention is the online library that so many online programs make available to students. The librarians are skilled at helping students negotiate and understand a myriad of helpful databases; search for journals, books, newspapers, video, and other sources of information; and acquire ideas for various assignments. Additionally, many online libraries offer live librarians, i.e., students can chat with librarians online in real-time. For many students, this is a first in-depth introduction to the value of a library – and it adds substance and interest to their courses, resulting in better course engagement.
Create a thorough template bank. This is a great time-saver for the online instructor and also allows for extensive details in giving assignment feedback, posting emails and announcements, responding to discussions and chats, and offering additional course resources. Students will enjoy the extensive information you offer, resulting in a more positive learning experience in all parts of the course. Create individual documents for each course portion where you need to post. For example:if you teach writing, you will write feedback for run-on sentences, a weak thesis, poor proofreading, improper spelling, etc. And for any template comments, you can always change them to fit a student’s need or class situation more specifically. Never be negative or critical in your comments; rather, be upbeat and instructional. You want students to appreciate what you write, not be put off or intimidated by it.
Take a “reality-based” educational approach. It’s one thing to teach a subject that offers information on which the students are assessed, quite another to show students the real value of this information beyond your course – this is known as reality-based education. Study after study has shown that when students understand how course subjects relate to them beyond the course – and beyond a grade – they are more apt to have an interest in the material. There are several ways this can be done: posting articles and interviews that offer examples of the course material “at work” … offering your own experiences as a professional in using course items … connecting the subject to your students’ lives (this info is nearly always offered at the beginning of a course when students introduce themselves). By showing students the importance of course information in the everyday world the course immediately takes on a much larger scope than mere X credits for Y grade – and will become important throughout students’ lives.
Never do minimum requirements. All distance learning programs set minimum requirements for online instructors, i.e., how many times an instructor must post in discussions and general class announcements/emails, how soon one must respond to student postings for the instructor, the deadline for returning student assignments, etc. Meeting these minimum requirements is crucial, but it is far better to go beyond the minimum in each area. Doing this will show supervisors your commitment to the course(s) and school, but the students are the true beneficiaries because they can count on you! You’ll find a stronger student-instructor rapport and more student enthusiasm.
Be sure your feedback on student assignments is detailed. Students are in your course to learn. While their texts and other materials offer extensive information on your course subject, the only form of personalized, ongoing, real-time assignment feedback comes from you. Thus, giving minimal comments – such as “Needs more work” or “Not the best approach” – often leaves students wondering what they can do to correct errors, improve their efforts, and better understand concepts, equations, information, etc. Rather, your feedback should take on the form of a personalized grammar or chemistry or criminal justice or whatever subject text for each student, presenting why something is not correct and how to get it right. And sprinkled throughout should be positive comments for exceptional efforts by the student. Your students will know you care about their learning – and they will take this learning with them beyond your course.
Take a proactive approach to anticipated problems and concerns. With each distance learning course you teach, students will continually send you emails and other posts with confusion, problems, concerns, and questions; these are especially prevalent in the first couple weeks of a course. You’ll need to respond to each, which can consume much time. To cut down on this student angst, to show yourself as an online instructor interested in his / her students, and to help you manage time, save these student postings, along with your responses, in a file on your computer. At the beginning of each course post something like a Common Questions and Concerns file; here, you would list various problems and questions students raised in previous courses (in a generic form) with your responses. And as you come across new ones, add them to your computer file to broaden your postings for the next course you teach.
Stay organized and wisely manage your time. We know these two items are “musts” to be a successful distance learning instructor – yet they continue to be overlooked, with catastrophic results in a course (and often to the online instructor). Many articles and books have been written on these. Still, here are a few tricks to master them (and these need not be limited to your course, yet all will result in a better course experience for you and your students): Organization – keep a daily checklist (online or on paper) of what must be done in your courses; consult it regularly … make use of online “reminder” programs that can send you alerts as to when you need to do something … check out various online “Post-It” note sites that help you in remembering this, that, or the other thing … have a neat and clean desk and office area. Time Management – Consult the various time management suggestions I’ve made in this column … keep distractions and interruptions to a minimum while teaching your course … know the best times of a day to handle various portions of your course … have often-used websites, information, and other material posted in various online folders for quick access … anticipate the time needed for various components of your course (such as “correcting” assignments and posting to discussions) so you can plan for these.
Remember: A person only becomes best when striving to be better – there is no other way.