Online Teaching Tips for Leveraging Students' Insights and Experiences

Teaching any online class is time-consuming and can be a juggling act. The instructor must keep students engaged and motivated, adhere to a variety of deadlines, quickly answer all student emails and postings, react to in-class “emergencies,” stay on top of all school policies, and teach the subject in an easy-to-understand manner—while remaining a patient, upbeat, and constant presence through it all. This is no easy task, and while we each have developed approaches to help us, there is one often underused “tool” that online instructors can employ: the students in one’s course.

When students are asked to help out, either directly or indirectly, a course can become more efficient and will run more smoothly, and the students can become more engaged with fewer concerns. Following are some suggestions on how to make the best use of your students as “assistants.”

Check out any suggestions and information found in discussion or chat forums. In the discussion and chat features of online courses, students offer information, insights, criticism, and suggestions on specific instructor questions related to the course—as well as on other student postings, the course overall, and even the instructor himself/herself. Read these thoroughly; there is much to be learned about problems in the present course, concerns students have with the subject matter, and confusion about instructor directions or comments.

Get a better sense of student learning needs from their lives. One of the biggest complaints students have about online courses is that they are too generic and theoretical, with little or no thought given to a course’s application in students’ real lives, in terms of “This is what I’m doing now” or “This is what I will be doing.” Yet when course information does touch the students in a meaningful, truly useful manner, it keeps students more engaged in the assignments and creates a better rapport throughout the course.

Two ways to ensure this are by reading the student biographical information that typically is posted at the beginning of a course and by posting a relevant question to the class, such as “How will the information in this course prove helpful in your everyday lives?” Use the information you learn about the students to insert activities, post resources, and offer discussion or chat questions that make the course more pertinent to them.

Post questions that will benefit the students and you—and your future courses. Ask class and individual questions of students relating to their experience in the course, their professional interests, and their course concerns. Don’t hesitate to ask students about other areas of the subject matter they would like to explore, what they think could make the course a more positive experience, and their overall reaction to your teaching of the course. By seeking this information, you can learn much to refine the course while it is being taught, to direct the course more toward student needs, and to improve upon future courses you teach.

When necessary, employ a buddy system to help weaker students. You will come across a student or two whose computer skills or basics in the subject you’re teaching may be very weak; the attention you must give all your students makes giving intense individual assistance to these students difficult if not impossible. To help, set up a buddy system: ask for student volunteers who will be available to answer another student’s questions during the course. You will find there are always students willing to volunteer; the end result is a class that is stronger and thus more engaged and vibrant. (Note that you should never promise extra credit or the like—it is not fair to the members of the class who may not have those strengths to offer.)

Be aware of problem areas that students encounter in navigating the course site. No course management system or course structure is perfect. Keep a master checklist of all items to look over before a course begins, and add those legitimate ones that students point out. This will only ensure that your next courses go smoother yet.

Let students remind you of your responsibility and role as an online instructor. Each student comes to you for guidance, information, insights, and suggestions on a subject so that he or she can become more adept with that subject. It makes no difference whether this is a core subject for a student’s major, a refresher course for a profession or certification, or an elective: the students themselves serve as a constant reminder that you are in the role of instructor because of your subject knowledge, your ability to teach, your adeptness at instructing online, your high ethical and moral standards, and your commitment to your school’s rules and policies. Never forget any of these elements; when you do, the students lose, the school falters, and you disappoint—all results that you never want in your teaching portfolio.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 14 years and has a national reputation in the subject. He has written and conducted workshops on it and is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book: How to Become the Perfect Online Instructor.

Excerpted from Teaching Online with Errol: The Online Instructor’s Hidden Assistant: The Online Student, Online Classroom, June 2009, 6-7.