If we had been asked if we were prepared to teach online before teaching our first online courses, the answer would have been a naïve “Yes.” We had attended several training sessions and thought that we were ready! In retrospect, after teaching more than 30 sections of online courses over the past five years, we agree that the answer should have been a definite “Maybe!”
If you are an instructor who is contemplating using online teaching methods to provide part or all of the course content, what do you need to know in order to prepare yourself for a successful and rewarding online teaching experience? It is not just a question of whether or not your teaching style fits online delivery, because there are many equally important issues that you need to consider before preparing to teach an online course.
The three groups of questions listed below will help in that preparation. The information is based on a collection of insights about and experiences in teaching online courses (fully online, blended, or Web-enhanced), and the issues are related to the topical areas of teaching skills/capabilities and pedagogy (e.g., student/instructor relationship, managing discussions), technology skills and capabilities (e.g., computer and office capabilities, computer skills), and institutional expectations (e.g., course support, training, course ownership).
Question #1: What teaching methods/techniques/skills will help me?
- Loves teaching and interacting with students on a frequent basis
- Prefers written, technology-based interaction over face-to-face interaction with students
- Answers all e-mails and responds to students within 48 hours, and enjoys a variety of formats to teach courses
- Gives complete and thorough answers to e-mail questions
- Writes e-mails that are unambiguous, not insulting or easily misunderstood
- Ready and willing to access the course room and e-mail at least five days a week, including one weekend day
- Realizes that most online courses take more time than “regular” classes
- Good at planning minutiae for courses and assignments before the course starts, and then sticking to a schedule
- Consistently meets deadlines for deliverables
- Uses (or is willing to develop) highly detailed syllabi, course policies, project information, sample papers, and more supporting course materials
- Encourages and welcomes questions from students
- Uses, and is adept at employing, Socratic questioning for leading course discussions
- Leads effective case study discussions
- Writes thorough feedback on paper drafts and final papers
- Challenges students’ thinking and encourages exploration of new areas of learning
- Integrates students’ experiences into the application of the theoretical principles of the subject matter
- Creates innovative assignments that foster analysis, synthesis, and integration of course materials at an appropriate educational level (lower and upper divisions, master’s and doctoral)
- Uses online plagiarism-detection tools
Question #2: What computer-related capabilities and skills do I need?
Computer and office configuration:
- High-speed access (DSL or cable) preferred for optimal interactions
- Good-quality monitor (and possibly 22-inch focal length computer glasses)
- Ergonomic chair/desk/keyboard set-up
- Full, current MS Office suite along with Adobe Acrobat to create and read PDF files
- Portability: ability to access online courses and school record-keeping tools from public libraries/cyber cafes or has a laptop to use WI/FI or hotel high-speed lines
- Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail accounts for student communication for easy Web access (if the online course room platform does not provide internal e-mail functionality)
- Secure backup/disaster recovery/contingency plans for all data and files on home computer and off-site access/storage
- Business phone line to protect personal privacy if willing to take student calls
- Touch type at high speed and high accuracy
- Save and open/read files in any word processing format (PDF, doc, wpd, rtf)
- Create .html documents from word-processed files
- Create and open attachments to e-mails and course room postings
- Strong file management and retrieval skills
- Use of file recovery and diagnostic software such as Norton Works
- Use all facets of the course delivery platform software (see later section)
- Scan and disinfect all files and e-mails coming in; consistently uses virus protection with virus definitions updated several times a week
- Scan computer for cookies and spyware frequently, and remove it all
- Use the comment feature of Word to provide feedback inside student files
- Conversant in using the Internet, WWW, libraries, and other Web-based information portals (e.g., scholar.google.com) for searches, navigation, bookmarks, and basic terminology
- Excellent use of netiquette and the ability to compose clear, unambiguous statements
Question #3: What questions should I ask of my institution?
- Is there support for purchasing the needed computer and Internet access capabilities for home computers?
- Is there back-up for all online course files and software (and a low outage rate for access) for all needed online university systems?
- Are there institutional instructional designers to assist the instructors in creating the online courses?
- Is there a “Master Course” template, or does each instructor start the course design and structure from ground zero? How much of the master course template must each instructor use (as dictated by the institution/department)?
- Are students screened for the ability to succeed in online course rooms before registering? Is there an online introductory course room tutorial for students?
- Is there a TA for the course?
- Is there adequate IT support for instructors and students?
- What types of student policies set by the instructor will the administration support (e.g., failure due to two weeks of course absence per term, failure to fully participate, late postings getting credit, make-up work or do-overs, plagiarism)?
- What will the maximum course size be? (An ideal course size is 13 to 15 students. Twenty students is the maximum effective class size for learning and teaching based on research and experience.)
- Is there a land-based testing center available for local students if needed? Are there alternative test-taking proctoring options at public libraries or other institutions for nonlocal students?
- Does the university offer an online reference library and a 24/7 technical help line?
- Does the university offer an online writing tutoring/consulting service for students, such as Smart Thinking?
- Is there a university license with a Web-based plagiarism detection service such as Turnitin.com or mydropbox.com? Is there an institution-wide policy regarding student plagiarism?
- Who owns the course design, content, and supporting documents: the faculty or the institution?
- Is the faculty member compensated for course development time?
- Does each instructor sign an intellectual property agreement form assigning any course content design and materials to the institution?
- Is an instructor permitted to teach the same course at another institution?
- What are the baseline course room performance expectations for the faculty (e.g., number of postings per week, number of days per week of activity in the course room, timeliness of response to e-mails and for grading)?
- How will the instructor’s performance be monitored and evaluated?
- Who (from an administration perspective) has access to the course room?
- Is there compensation to the instructor for developing the course content and supporting materials?
- Is there compensation for teaching the course (flat fee) or a sliding scale by student (capitation)?
- Will the teaching compensation go up as the number of sections the instructor has taught increases and the student evaluation scores increase or reach an established threshold?
- Is training available for the faculty member on a) the pedagogical theories and principles necessary to create strong online courses, b) conversion of courses from one platform to another, and c) use of the course room software?
- Is course development and instruction training available online (so that the instructor may experience online learning from a student perspective)?
- On which course platform software will the course be delivered?
- Will the institution mandate the course platform, or can the instructor select from several vendors?
- Has the institution set, and monitored, response-time expectations? One- to two-second responses are normal.
- Can instructors view the course room content and interactions from both the instructor and student points of view?
In summary, an instructor should have solid information about the expectations of the institution and department before agreeing to develop and teach an online course. Knowing what to expect and what is needed to do the best possible job of teaching are the most critical tools the instructor can have. With sufficient support from the institution and academic departments, teaching online is rewarding and enjoyable. It is one of the few teaching modalities in which every student participates actively and is always awake in class!
Contact Carol Bormann Young at CarolBormann.Young@metrostate.edu, Nancy Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ken Hess at Ken.Hess@metrostate.edu.