online learning

What Do Students Really Want from Online Instructors?

Over the past nine years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing approximately 200 instructors at my institution develop and teach their first online course. I’ve witnessed instructors excited by the opportunity, but I’ve also observed many who were hesitant or even fearful of teaching online.

The instructors who were hesitant or fearful often would ask: “So, what’s the secret to being a great online instructor?” I had the sense they were expecting an extensive or complex answer. Many times they were surprised by my response.

Much has been written about student satisfaction in online courses, and there certainly are a number of factors that can influence a student’s experience as an online learner—institution, discipline, level of course, peers, home life, instructor, and so on. The ideas in this article have come from three sources: my 11 years of online teaching experience, hundreds of discussions with instructors about what has and hasn’t worked in their online courses, and the research literature.

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Facilitating Communities of Practice in Online Courses

What are communities of practice?
A community of practice is a network of people who exchange knowledge about a common profession. Members of the community exchange best practices and share evidence and results while supporting each other on a personal level. Good examples of these communities are the LinkedIn groups that can be found for nearly any profession.

While communities of practice are common and valuable in the working world, too often the interactions within a course are designed to apply only to that course, rather than prepare the student for the broader discussion within the profession that they will encounter after leaving school. That’s why I focus on forming communities of practice within my online courses.

A gradual approach to communities of practice
While there are various ways to promote communities of practices in online courses, I find discussion forums are the easiest place to start. When I design my discussion forums for my classes, I use a gradual design approach that spans the entire semester. The idea is to use the forum to facilitate a pathway toward communities of practice for the students.

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What Students Can Teach Us about Online Learning

My students participate in an activity called “Building a Learning Community” during the first week of classes. In this activity, completed via a discussion board, I ask them to share about three topics: what their best and “not best” teachers did that helped or hindered their learning, what peers have done that has had a positive or negative impact, and feedback on certain policies (e.g., late work, deadlines). The answers have taught me a lot about online teaching, and my responses on these boards provide the students with insight on what they can expect from me.

Students report that their “best” teachers had multiple ways to present ideas and were relatable and involved. They also enjoy lessons that include more than just reading the textbook and watching a lecture, lessons that, when appropriate, incorporate outside videos, other materials, or instructor-made videos to demonstrate concepts covered in the lecture and/or text. They typically define “relatable” faculty as those who make their enthusiasm for their topics and their students’ successes visible even through cyberspace, who talk “to them” about topics in lectures rather than “at them,” and who invite questions in person or virtually. Those identified as better teachers were those who make it clear they read discussion boards, either through being “on the boards” with the students or via the feedback given. Those instructors also tended to send a weekly message to wrap up lessons, preview the upcoming week, or comment on a common issue that might have come up in the class. These instructors were visible and obviously “in the class” with the students, being more of a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.” The less effective teachers read straight from slides with no elaboration during video lectures, rarely encouraged students or gave much feedback, weren’t attentive to class concerns, and failed assignments for reasons such as formatting not being 100 percent correct. Students most commonly express frustration with past instructors who did not return emails or phone calls.

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Set Students up for Success in Online Courses

Student success comes from strong leadership, including establishing rapport, providing resources, and putting the onus of responsibility on the students, rather than the instructor. Perhaps the most important area for success in any online course is what I call the “start here” area. Let’s explore this idea further.

“Start here” area
Some instructors call this an introductory area or a “welcome to the course” area. I like calling it “start here,” because, quite frankly, it’s incredibly descriptive and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

Let’s take a look at the six key elements of a start-here area: the instructor introduction video, course expectations, main assignment tutorials, technology tutorials, student engagement areas, and a syllabus quiz.

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Three Keys to Starting Strong in Your Online Course

The start of the term is a critical time for any course, when students form an impression that can help or hinder them for the duration of a class. There are three key practices that can set the tone for the entire term and have an effect on retention and student success if implemented.

First impressions are important, so reflect on how you welcome students and the tone you use. Many students report feeling overwhelmed when they start online classes, and a verbose first message can exacerbate that. Ideally, your course will have some sort of “Start Here” section or unit, which might contain your syllabus; the course schedule; and links to Learning Management System tutorials, downloads students might need, or campus services that might be helpful (tutoring, financial aid, counseling). I also include a link to a quiz for students to assess if they are suited to online learning. With your “Start Here” in place, your initial message to students can direct them there; avoid being overly wordy, and instead, focus on helping them to feel at home. This helps build your presence and create trust in you, and it can establish you as a part of the learning community of the class as well. You may even want to create a short welcome video, but we will talk about videos later.

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Developing Online Instructor Presence

What is instructor presence? It’s the way that instructors present themselves to the students in the online classroom. It also involves simply being present to students through the regular posting of course materials, discussion posts, and announcements.

Instructor presence increases student retention because students are more likely to stay in class if they feel their instructor cares about them. By being present, the instructor can pull students together, encouraging cooperation and collaboration. Additionally, if things start to go off the rails and a student begins to have problems, an instructor who is present can address those problems immediately.

How does one establish instructor presence in an online class? First, determine your teaching persona. Next, determine which elements to share with the class. Last, create a strategy for regularly expressing those aspects of your persona to your class.

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Channel Your Inner Avatar and Add Interest to Your Online Content

Have you ever experienced the eerie, but familiar, sensation that your students have not done the required reading and are not prepared for class? We all know that our class sessions would be a lot more enjoyable—for us and for our students—if our students were better prepared for class discussions. After one particularly challenging session, we discovered that while our students spend around 20 hours a week preparing for class, they spend about 10 hours a day using a variety of digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, PCs, video games, and TVs.

After some contemplation, we decided to embrace our inner avatar! We found CrazyTalk Animator 2, which enabled us to put a face, body, motion, and a voice to the instructor. This program allows users, even those without any coding experience, to create short video clips using a selected avatar and voice. The avatars can run, smile, frown, dance, write, and do a number of other things. Moreover, the user can simply drop the avatar into any PowerPoint presentation to add an additional component of animation to an otherwise lifeless slide. We created the avatars to present short, focused discussions of course topics.

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How to Make Online Group Projects More Effective

When we look at the value of collaborative group work, the research is clear: group work is beneficial to learning. It improves retention, critical thinking, persistence, motivation, satisfaction, engagement, time on-task, and the list goes on and on.

Now, these benefits are not unique to the online classroom. Collaborative group work is valuable whether you’re sitting in a face-to-face classroom or in an online classroom. But it’s important to remember that some of these benefits are uniquely suited for the online classroom.

Think for a minute about students in an online course. Most of them are sitting at home, maybe at work. They’re alone at a computer. It’s just them and the monitor. It’s not the most engaging atmosphere.

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Online Course Activities to Increase Student Engagement

I have learned that a few simple instructor activities greatly increase student engagement in an online course. Here are some of the most effective activities you can use in your courses.

Connect icebreaker discussions to content
The use of icebreakers has become widespread in online learning. But what kinds of icebreakers are best to use? My observations suggest that great icebreakers are those that pique students’ interest in the content while also helping them learn more about each other as whole people. For example, an icebreaker in a course about forensic biology might ask students to share an experience in their lives that made them think forensic biology is an intriguing field of study (their own experience, a film they’ve seen, or stories they’ve read).

The key is that the students begin to get to know each other through shared stories, but these stories are connected to the course content in ways that are personally meaningful to students. This allows the icebreaker discussion to flow into the content discussions that follow rather than create a space for “social chat” that is disconnected from the goals of the learning. Some students will immediately find peers they feel personally connected to through this story sharing. For students who are highly motivated by their relationships with peers, this gets the semester off to a great start.

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Online Forum Posts Improve Discussion in a Face-to-Face Classroom

Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time), lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.” It’s clear to me that once cold calling becomes the norm in a course, using that technique can increase the quality of in-class discussions.

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