September 10th, 2008

5 Ways to Create Nonthreatening Distance Learning Courses While Maintaining High Academic Standards

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Instructors who are new to the online classroom often struggle with the issue of how to be rigorous while creating a safe learning environment, and mistakenly think, “You can be nice or demanding, but somehow you can’t be both.” “That’s absolutely not true,” says Andrea Sanders, associate professor of English at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.

Sanders and her colleague David White, professor of English at Walters State Community College, serve as mentors for new online instructors in the Tennessee Regents Board Online Degree Programs. One of the concepts Sanders and White advocate is termed “nonjudgmental rigor”—a professional, demanding, and productive environment in which students feel comfortable asking questions and pursing learning.

Her are some techniques they recommend:

Make the course easy to navigate. “If you’re getting two or three messages from your students that say, ‘Where is x?’ the course is not well designed. The onus is on the instructor to make the course clear to begin with,” Sanders says.

Be aware of the online persona you create. “Many people who teach online, especially at first, don’t think about the learner at the other end. They don’t think about how they are coming across in their text, emails, and responses on discussion boards,” White says. The asynchronous nature of most online courses makes it possible to take the time to reflect on each communication with students. You can edit email messages before sending them, take time to compose your thoughts before posting a message to a discussion board, and revise your course year after year. In short, the online persona you create can be an improvement on your face-to-face persona.

However, this online persona should not be radically different from who you are. “As a mentor, I would say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about what your strengths are as a teacher.’ As you go into this class, we want to build on those strengths, whatever they may be,” Sanders says.

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White has developed his online persona during the 10 years he has taught online. He maintains a Word file that contains all the email messages he usually sends to students during a course. This enables him to compose messages with just the right tone and copy and paste them as needed. When other instructors teach his courses, White gives them all his materials, including these email messages, for them to revise and use as they wish. “If an instructor took bits and pieces of my materials and didn’t revise them and sent out another email that was his or hers, there would be a disconnect. I’m sure students would be confused, not by what was said, but by how it was said,” White says.

Set the stage for student interaction. “The first week of class is critical,” Sanders says. “If you jump in there with the introductory week and actually respond to the things students are saying and keep the conversation going, then they’ll have a sense that you’re listening to them. I think it’s better teaching practice to drop out then when they’re doing the real discussions and not to get too involved, because then you end up taking the words out of their mouths. In that [initial] discussion they’re going to find out a lot about you. I don’t mean you need to tell them every detail of your life, but the fact that you’re interested and respectful can come out in that first week.”

Get an objective perspective on your course. White recommends viewing your online course from an “aesthetic distance”—“standing off from your course and looking at it with a fresh set of eyes.” One of the best ways to get an objective perspective on your course is to have another instructor teach it and give you feedback.

Edit yourself. Wait before responding to students if you are angry or upset. Write an initial response, and let it sit for a few minutes. Then go back and edit it. If necessary, revise it a third time, asking, “Did I answer the specific question that the student asked?” “Keep to the facts rather than getting engaged or embroiled in some kind of test of wills. You can do that very easily with email, which is your primary mode of communication, whereas in the classroom you may be caught unawares or you may be blindsided—and of course you can’t edit your performance in class the way you can in an online environment,” Sanders says.

Contact Andrea Sanders at Andrea.Sanders@Chattanoogastate.edu and David White at David.White@ws.edu.