Since the onset of COVID-19 several years ago, the popularity of online learning has rapidly increased. Due to the flexibility, many students prefer pursuing their college degrees from home at their own pace and time that works around family and work obligations.
As an online instructor and faculty development practitioner for over 20 years, I have found the following to be some of the pros and cons of online education:
- The flexibility and convenience of students working at their own pace and time
- No commuting or parking hassles
- Students can attend classes from any location of their choice
- Students are responsible for their own learning
- Improved student attendance
- Students learn from other students with various diverse backgrounds
- The textbooks are usually administered as e-books and are less expensive
- Tuition is usually more affordable than tuition charged for traditional classes
- Students miss the face-to-face interaction with the instructors and students
- Some students prefer to attend traditional classes with an instructor present
- Learning the required technology could be challenging and overwhelming
- Students may not be self-disciplined, making it easy to procrastinate
- Online learning may not be the desired learning environment for everyone
- The university may need to invest in additional technology training for instructors
During my tenure as a university professor, I served as the director of faculty development for several online colleges and universities. My main role was to ensure that instructors were being productive and following the proper adult learning principles in their online classrooms. One way in which I accomplished this was by conducting a thorough classroom observation of their classes. When conducting these observations, I found that there were many key practices that successful instructors instituted in their teaching; however, after observing so many classrooms over the years, I noticed a pattern of two key practices that made the biggest impact on the level of success for those instructors. In addition, instructors who used these two practices, tended to have the highest student evaluations. These two practices are 1) visibility and 2) immediate feedback.
The first key practice is visibility. To be visible in an online classroom is to be accessible to students. Students need to know that the instructor is present and is available and ready to accommodate their concerns, needs, and requests.
There are several ways in which an online instructor can achieve this. One way is to make sure the instructor posts their contact information and office hours in several areas of the class that are easily accessible, including the announcement forum and the syllabus. Students may need to contact the instructor—this will ensure that they have a means of accomplishing this.
A second way to be visible in the classroom is by making sure the instructor responds to all student inquiries in a timely fashion in accordance with the university policy. For most universities, this is between 24 and 48 hours. Instructors should try to appear in the classroom no less than five times a week.
Another way of being visible in the classroom is through daily/weekly announcements. This is the instructor’s opportunity to communicate with all students and address any upcoming assignments or concerns immediately to the entire class. When teaching my online classes, I use the announcement section to post messages, updates, current trends in the field, weekly assignments and wrap ups, and information that the students will need to know for the upcoming week.
Finally, and most important for visibility, is to be present in the discussion board forum as much as possible. The discussion board forum usually consists of a question that promotes responses from students and offers students a chance to meet others. In the discussion board forum, students share some of their experiences, thoughts, and ideas with each other. The instructor’s role in the discussion board forum is to challenge students to think critically and outside of the box, as well as steering students in the right direction. One way of accomplishing this is to use the Socratic method of questioning. The Socratic method is designed to encourage students to continue the discussion. In addition, instructors should consider thanking students publicly in the discussion board forum for submitted discussion posts that show critical thinking concepts. As shown, the role of the instructor in the discussion board forum is critical. The forum is where the instructor will be able to demonstrate the highest level of visibility in the classroom.
The second key practice that is important for online teaching success is immediate feedback. On the first day of class, instructors need to clearly communicate how their students will be graded. Students should know what to expect from the course as well as what to expect from their instructor.
Back in your college days, how many of you were anxious to get your graded assignments and exams returned? Students want to know their grades from assignments and exams and don’t want to wait. This quickness in grading shows the students that instructors care about the student. The instructors that I have observed who return grades quickly tend to have a higher level of student satisfaction and better overall student retention in their classes. From experience, I have always made it a practice and priority to grade all assignments and exams before the deadline given by the university. I can tell you from my own personal experience with student satisfaction surveys that students really appreciate fast grading feedback.
The instructors I have observed who are successful in their online classes view immediate feedback as not only grading in a timely fashion, but also answering student inquiries as soon as possible.
Providing immediate feedback is not the only important criteria here, but also how instructors provide the feedback as well. For example, when it comes to providing feedback on assignments and exams, it is a good idea for instructors to be positive and encouraging while using interpretive and descriptive comments. Even if the student did not handle an assignment perfectly, instructors should highlight the areas that need improvement, but also focus on areas where the student performed well.
Encouraging students as well as pointing out their deficiencies in a positive manner is a major function of the role of the instructor and is critical for student success. Instructors should provide students with substantive feedback and examples and refer them to additional sources of supplemental information when appropriate. Also, instructor feedback needs to be specific and provide clear guidelines on areas that need improvement.
Another way to provide immediate feedback is to contact those students who have not been present in class, have not been participating, or have been performing poorly. There could be many reasons as to why they have not participated, and it is important to assist them in resolving some of these issues and getting them actively back in class.
To summarize, there are many key principles that instructors must be cognizant of to be successful as an online instructor. However, based upon my observation as a faculty development practitioner in many online classrooms, I found instructors who are most successful use similar key practices. I noticed that two key practices had a major impact on their success—visibility and immediate feedback. From these observations, I also came to the conclusion that both of these key practices were highly linked to student satisfaction, as well as improved student retention.
Dr. Al Infande is an online human resources faculty at Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Ala. He also serves as a professor at several colleges and universities where he teaches courses in human resources management.