June 29th, 2010

Lessons Learned: Advice to Online Instructors

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If you have taken online courses, you have likely gained some valuable insights into what to do and what not to do as an online instructor. If you have never been an online learner, here are some lessons learned from Anna Brown, a learning technology specialist enrolled in a hybrid doctoral program in learning technologies.

Encourage side conversations (in the appropriate venue). Many instructors will set up social discussion boards to provide an online space for students to discuss topics that are not directly related to the course. This enables students to have low-stakes discussions that build relationships that foster subsequent discussions on course-related topics.

Ask social questions. Orientation is not just about learning the technology. “We often tend to think that as long as we make sure that they know how the tool works then we’ve done that orientation part; let’s move on to the beginning of the course,” Brown says. “Just as important are the social aspects, what it feels like. For example, we’ve had some synchronous [voice] class sessions and sessions using text chat, which was a very strange thing to get used to. Stating how weird it is to have class using chat is a fair comment. But if you never actually get to say that to the group, nobody acknowledges it.”

Survey your students. Brown has used surveys to collect information about students as a group. “I found that the students were really interested to see what the group thinking was about certain topics. It was a way to get to know them in relation to the class—‘What tools are you familiar with?’ ‘Which websites do you like to go to?’ ‘Do you work full-time or part-time?’ That works well at the beginning of the semester. The students seem to find it interesting. They may have a very strong opinion about something and tend to feel that it’s one shared by everybody. I think that helped get them thinking about themselves as a group. At the midterm I asked about the pace of the course, types of learning methods, and whether there was anything missing.”

Provide opportunities for anonymous feedback. Brown has found that anonymous student feedback can provide instructors with useful information to help guide instruction. “The program had a new associate dean who put up a Web form that could be anonymous. We were able to send feedback that didn’t necessarily have to be connected to us and have the professors know that we weren’t happy about something. That was useful,” Brown says.

Offer synchronous sessions. As a student, Brown has participated in synchronous text chats and synchronous voice chats and has found voice to be more effective. She says that text chat is difficult to follow because there might be multiple conversations going on simultaneously. Brown finds synchronous voice sessions to be very useful. “I really like the fact that we have synchronous classes. I think that there’s a community piece to it just knowing that we’re all getting together at the same time. I like having those points where I come in and converse with people. It gives a sense of continuity to the group that we don’t really have if it’s asynchronous.”

Reprinted from Insights from an Online Learner/Instructor, August 2009, Online Classroom.