As an online instructor, I require my students to engage in weekly discussion forums. In the online college environment, discussion forums are designed to simulate a professor and his or her students engaged in a traditional classroom discussion. Students respond to a question and then reply to the responses of their classmates. The point is to keep the discussion moving, keep students engaged in the topic for the week, and facilitate learning.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but…” was the opening line of every email I received in the first week of this semester. This line was usually followed by nothing that would actually bother me: a question about the week’s materials, a link to an interesting resource, a discussion about a potential research topic, and the like. This was all despite my many attempts to ensure that students did not feel like they were imposing whenever they contacted me: a pre-semester introductory email, a video welcoming them to the course, my biography and teaching philosophy, virtual office hours, and multiple reminders about my contact information. Yet, with all of my entreaties to reach out, I was still dealing with the real issues of isolation, fear, and frustration that results in students leaving their online courses. To combat these feelings, professors—myself included—have to deliberately, consistently, and relentlessly work to build student-faculty and student-student relationships in online courses.
In their article on the effect of instructor participation in online discussion boards, Margaret Mazzolini and Sarah Maddison (2003) asked if, “online instructors [should] be encouraged to take a prominent ‘sage on the stage’ role, a more constructivist ‘guide on the side’ role, or an ultra-low profile as ‘the ghost in the wings’” when they are facilitating asynchronous discussion boards. Fifteen years later, we are still debating this same question.
Online students need to feel an instructor presence in their classes. Thorough explanations and effective communication help fulfill this need and can transform a mediocre online course into a great one—and it all starts with the syllabus.
By now we’ve all heard about the importance of faculty engagement in online courses. A faculty member who properly engages in an online classroom can boost student success, improve satisfaction, and raise retention rates. Discussions about faculty engagement tend to focus on activities like interaction in discussion boards and frequency of posting announcements. Although these actions are important, what’s overlooked in these conversations is the need to ensure students are first comfortable and prepared to participate in their classes. Let’s face it, starting a new semester can be anxiety inducing for students and the situation can be exasperated in an online environment where students can’t ease their anxiety by walking to class with a friend or seeing a welcoming smile from their instructor as they enter a classroom.
Online learning presents new challenges beyond those of a traditional classroom because students must become more responsible for their learning. Many learners are unfamiliar with the online learning environment, which may include unfamiliar technology, isolation from instructors and university staff, and a lack of face-to-face interaction other learners. As online instructors, we must give additional attention to strategies that will keep our learners engaged, create a successful learning environment, and provide a rewarding learning experience where learners feel supported, valued, and connected.
Many faculty members express concern that discussion in their online courses is shallow or sparse. What is it that makes meaningful dialogue so elusive in online courses? Some practices in online course design and discussion facilitation can actually encourage superficial dialogue. Faculty grading and feedback that require too much formality of language can scare students into virtual silence, sticking to exactly what the text says or saying what they think the professor wants to hear. Focusing on lower-level writing issues, such as grammar, APA style, or academic language, takes students away from content issues toward format issues. Although faculty might expect students to use formal academic language in their essays and research papers, it is not ideal for discussion.
With the increase in online classes being offered by higher education institutions and the convenience and flexibility it affords (particularly for adult learners), it is important that institutions hire, train, and retain high-quality, student-centric online faculty. Just like on-ground students, online students need instructors who are passionate, organized, creative, and manage the (virtual) classroom effectively. Unfortunately, from time to time, online faculty can struggle with burnout, which may make them less effective instructors.
As online education continues to grow, so does the potential for academic dishonesty. So how do you ensure your online students are not cheating on their tests? Bottom line, you don’t. But there are ways to stack the deck in your favor.
The good news is it’s not as bad as you think. A 2002 study by Grijalva, Kerkvliet, and Nowell it found that “academic dishonesty in a single online class is no more prevalent than in traditional classrooms” (Paullet, Chawdhry, Douglas & Pinchot, 2016, pg. 46). Although the offenders have become quite creative in their endeavors, the prevention remains the best defense.
While most faculty stick with the tried-and-true quiz and paper assessment strategies for their online courses, the wide range of technologies available today offers a variety of assessment options beyond the traditional forms. But what do students think of these different forms?
Scott Bailey, Stacy Hendricks, and Stephanie Applewhite of Stephen F. Austin State University experimented with different assessment strategies in two online courses in educational leadership, and surveyed students afterward on their impressions of each one. The students were asked to score the strategies using three criteria: 1) enjoyment, 2) engagement with the material, and 3) transferability of knowledge gained to practice. The resulting votes allowed investigators to rank the various strategies from least to most preferred by students.