Teach Like It’s 1990: Online Teaching Fundamentals Are Always in Style

The list of technological add-ons to enhance our teaching efforts seems to be endless and growing. Yet as these add-ons continue to grow in use, a problem has also begun to surface: the online instructor who relies on these “cool” apps and software so heavily that he or she begins to neglect the basics of teaching.

The following are the crucial basics we who teach online must always remember, and keep at the forefront of our teaching. They worked well in the early days of online instruction, and they continue to prove their importance today:

An engaging online personality counts. Having the right teaching strategies and wowing the students with gee-whiz software programs and audiovisual clips are important in today’s online teaching environment, but if you don’t have an online personality that is friendly, inviting, and engaging, students will quickly become less motivated and less involved in the course. Just as in a face-to-face class, students online react to the instructor personality that they “see,” “hear,” and “feel”—and no amount of technical correctness and special effects can take the place of an online instructor’s personality.

Make sure you are a constant presence in the classroom. It has become so easy to place an online class on autopilot: the students read everything that’s needed … a number of resources (including audiovisual) are in place and can be added to offer them additional course involvement … assignment drop boxes, discussion threads, and live chats can all be set up ahead of time. With all these available, who needs an online instructor? Simple: your students do. The more your students see you in class—in discussions, chats, classwide and individual postings, comments on assignments—the more excited they will be about the course. You are there not only to motivate them and spur them on but also to answer their many questions, to guide them in the right direction, to explain why something on an assignment is incorrect, and to remind them of the subject’s importance in their lives. So be in the class often—it really helps your students enjoy the online learning experience.

Stress the basics of your course by writing about them.
It is easy to grab a YouTube explanation of nearly any subject, and posting pictures and videos can do much to give further detail on an item. But reading explanations and insights and suggestions and experiences and ideas from and of the instructor becomes like presenting the students The Ten Commandments on a stone tablet, for these all come from you, in your writing, and specifically for the students. It is intimate and enthusiastic, important and meaningful—and something the students can take with them and use far beyond the end of your course. You are the teacher of the online course, you are the guru whom the students seek out and depend upon—your words (and lots of them) are important in the course, so be sure you deliver them often.

Focus on your writing. Yes, I urge you to write often to your students—but be aware of how you write: sentence structure, vocabulary selection, proofreading, clarity, and (most important) the end user. Your writing is a direct reflection on you—students are holding you up to a higher standard than they have for themselves, as they should, and you need to produce at that higher level—and this includes your writing.

Take the time to know your students. While it is rare to be able to see your students (sometimes, Skype or the like is used by instructors) and thus know a little about them through visual observation, the online teaching environment gives you a constant in-depth look at your students—their backgrounds, hopes, fears, professional and personal interests, course concerns, etc. But if you don’t use this information to get each student more motivated, more engaged, more excited about your course, and giving his or her all to learn, this trove of information is wasted. Rather than be an online instructor who gives the impression of teaching to nameless and faceless masses, bring certain portions of student information into your teaching for the whole class and much of it for each student (on assignment feedback and in private exchanges). This individual, personal approach to your course goes a long way in having a close student-instructor rapport while keeping those students continually active in your course.

Read books, journals, and other materials to improve your teaching. I’m not talking about online articles: no, don’t stop reading these (anything to improve your teaching prowess and subject knowledge should be embraced), but rather don’t forget about good old books and magazines and journals with pages we need to turn by hand. Having a library of these is motivating. They can be taken anywhere and often cannot be found online. Print materials often contain much more extensive research, footnotes, and material, as they usually are not written for the “I-don’t-have-much-time-to-read-this-so-please-summarize-it” online reader.

Be on time, dependable, and enthusiastic. These three biggies speak for themselves—being on time is expected, and when it doesn’t happen students (as well as administrators) get upset; dependability is a core value for any teacher, but more so for the online instructor, as there are so many more components involved in keeping an online course running smoothly; and enthusiasm tells the students you want to be there, you like being there—and this rubs off on them. Never forget about these three, as each is a core element in online teaching.

Keep a teaching journal. Jotting down your successes and failures, unexpected situations, new ideas and resources, problems you couldn’t solve and those you did (including the solutions), new student concerns, etc., will give you a nice resource on how to make each course better, smoother, richer, and more enjoyable—for you and the students. In the end, you want to be an online teacher who succeeds—gloriously—because YOU are a teacher who knows how to teach; once you can do this, then you can bring in all the whistles and bells you’d like, for you will control them, not they you.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 15 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book—How to Become the Perfect Online Instructor.

Excerpted from “Teach Online Like It’s 1990 … and Refresh Your Teaching Prowess! Online Classroom.” Online Classroom (August 2010): 6-7. Print.