Tips for Successful Online Teaching in Traditional Universities
January 2003 Issue No. 35
Tips for Successful Online Teaching in Traditional Universities
Online learning – often referred to as Web-based or computer-mediated learning – is used in many ways in university courses. Applications range from complementing face-to-face (F2F) courses by adding websites that hold teaching resources or provide a virtual place for learners’ discussions,
to delivering entire courses online to learners for whom there is no F2F component. In this paper, I describe “full meal deal” online learning, where learners and instructors, separated from each other physically and/or geographically, engage in teaching and learning using computer technology. This is “asynchronous” learning, available “any time, any place” to learners who enjoy the flexibility of being able to access courses via the Internet whenever it is convenient for them.
While this type of online learning is becoming more common at traditional, campus-based institutions, it has also been the raison d’être behind the emergence of large virtual universities that cater to a globalized clientele that does not expect a bricks-and-mortar institutional presence. This paper describes online delivery within a traditional university such as UNB, sketching some key issues in the provision of successful online learning. (“Success,” in this context, refers not only to course completion but also to learning experiences that provide opportunities for knowledge construction, intellectual and personal growth, and the exchange of fruitful ideas among members of the learning group.)
The separation of learners from instructors that occurs in distance education modes such as online learning changes the balance of the instructional role. The introduction of asynchronous technology through which teaching and learning occur changes the instructional roles again. Dividing instructional roles into teaching, managing, and supporting functions, I present these considerations for online instructors.
The teaching function
The literature on online learning makes clear that didactic, hierarchical presentations of material do not work well in this medium. The best approaches are represented by collaborative, constructive models of teaching where activities are geared towards communal knowledge construction through the exchange of thoughts, ideas, questions and suppositions. Instructors working to promote interaction and encourage knowledge building can benefit from:
- Being creative and innovative. The logistics of online learning render impractical and undesirable the didactic presentation of huge chunks of content. Curricula can be presented in ways that encourage participation, multi-directional interaction, critical thinking and problem solving. Case studies, role play, debate, structured discussion and problem-based tools are effective approaches.
- Being adaptable and receptive to change. Adapting our teaching styles is difficult as we tend to teach in ways that "fit" us due to our own learning histories or because of past successes. Collaborative constructivist teaching, however, invites shared knowledge building. Whereas not as appropriate in some content areas as in others, online instructors are challenged to relinquish traditional lecture formats and explore ways to give learners more control of their learning.
- Being comfortable with levels of ambiguity. Regardless of your teaching strategies, your separation, in time and space, from your learners will render your sense of control “looser” than you might be used to. Silences in the online medium can cause novice instructors alarm: What is the class doing? What are they thinking? Do they understand? A level of faith and confidence (and course design features) must replace normal avenues for visual and oral feedback.
- Working with and responding to "teachable moments." Concomitant with and arising from the issues listed above, the flow of online teaching and learning is considerably different. Learners’ most important insights may not come from their reading of your online material on Topic A but from, instead, an online group discussion of Topic B. As an adaptive and flexible instructor, you pick up the ball on Topics A + B and continue to march up the learning curve with the group. You recognize that you cannot control occasions of insightful discourse.
The management function
A certain amount of management accompanies all university teaching. Instructors do “housekeeping” at the beginning of classes and outline procedural expectations in course syllabi. The managing function inherent in online teaching is heightened, and its importance correspondingly magnified, because students cannot see instructors in order to read their body language, hear the humorous inflection in their voices, or indicate, by their own raised eyebrows or audible gasps, their reactions to instructors’ announcements. The time-space gap of online learning raises the possibility of miscommunication and misunderstanding and consequently invites undesirable levels of anxiety and/or correspondence. The following behaviours will help online instructors minimize potential management difficulties:
- Being present. Online teaching requires not only instructional time but also management time. Your regular and frequent presence on the course site is as desired by learners as it is essential for the timely management of whatever issues may arise.
- Being prompt. Online learners, stumped by an assignment or by a question blocking their progress, will contact you during their online worktime, which is more likely to be 11 at night than 10 in the morning! Most will still anticipate answers to their questions as quickly as if they had asked that question of you directly, in class. In the style of email, the immediacy of the medium breaks down time/access barriers associated with traditions such as office hours and voice mail.
- Being organized. Each course detail should be accurately spelled out at the beginning of online courses. Learners carefully check over details of assignments and due dates to solidify their schedules. It is important to your credibility, the credibility of the course, and their level of comfort that the course be well-organized and clearly laid out.
- Being knowledgeable. In addition to knowing content areas, online instructors should be reasonably comfortable with the technology housing their courses. Whereas most universities provide a level of tech support, instructors are on the front line and the ability to troubleshoot small problems goes a long way in ensuring smooth course flow. (Fortunately, online software, such as WebCT, is not very difficult to master.)
- Being flexible. You are working in a new medium that represents changed parameters for traditional learning roles. You are the connector between learners and the institution in a new way, your role heightened by the lack of the usual comforting touchstones – other learners who can be seen and experienced, classrooms, scheduled lectures, coffee breaks. As a result, instructors may feel the need to assume more ownership of learners’ “process needs.”
The support function
The literature on online learning stresses the importance of support systems in online success. Learners often find their support in each other and in their personal lives, from family and friends, but online instructors can also provide essential levels of learner support by:
- Being empathic. Online learners, already often feeling fragile or isolated, can easily misunderstand instructors’ intentions, as they have access only to the written medium.
- Being respectful. The archival nature of online learning transactions is one of its strongest features in that it preserves accurate and complete records of all exchanges among group members. Conversely, many learners feel inhibited about committing their thoughts and words to a permanent record. In light of such fears, it is especially important that instructors respect their students and that instructional responses demonstrate that sense of respect.
- Being encouraging. More so than for F2F learners, again because of their possible sense of isolation or discomfort with technology, online learners praise instructors who are explicitly encouraging. Instructors should make it clear that they recognize that this form of learning can tax the learners’ motivation, independence, and organizational skills.
- Being tolerant. Nurturing students as they ramp up to online learning prowess can be an intensive process. Woods (1994) identified 12 steps of acceptance that learners grappling with new technologies undergo. Initial fright and distrust is eventually replaced by confident acceptance (in most cases!)
The computer and its related functions – online learning included – are here to stay. Though institutional adaptations to this medium may vary, there are many constants that are well documented by empirical research. In this brief and introductory overview, I have outlined some of the issues that distinguish, to varying degrees, online teaching from face-to-face teaching. Space restrictions have prevented the inclusion of citations. My website, located at http://www.unbf.ca/education/welcome/people/conrad.html is linked to a number of sites that can further contribute to your exploration of online teaching.
About the Author - Dianne Conrad, is a professor in the Faculty of Education.
Contact Teaching Voices at: firstname.lastname@example.org