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March 17, 2016

Teaching@ Pitt: Online teaching



Online teaching

Online teaching is a growing trend in higher education. Chances are that you or your colleagues already are teaching either fully online or in a hybrid format, which offers a combination of face-to-face and online instruction. Teaching a fully online or hybrid course provides advantages in flexibility of time, space and learning tools; however, online teaching also poses challenges to instructors and learners.

If the course is not carefully designed, teaching can be reduced to little more than content delivery. Learning management systems like Blackboard are sometimes used as mere content repositories from which learners periodically retrieve texts and other documents.

The teaching and learning experience may seem unnatural because the instructor and learners do not see each other, except during synchronous virtual class meetings using web conferencing tools. In contrast to real-time face-to-face interaction, learner-instructor and learner-learner interaction is delayed by use of asynchronous communication tools such as email and chat box, especially in the case of fully online courses. Even during web conferences, learner-instructor and learner-learner interaction can be slowed or disrupted by limited Internet bandwidth.

Additionally, lack of the instructor’s and classmates’ physical presences can cause online learners to feel disconnected and isolated. The perception of a community of learning that comes from interactions and social bonding is more likely to occur in a traditional face-to-face course.

These challenges can hinder learning. Achieving optimal online learning requires significant effort in designing and delivering courses so that they can better emulate the face-to-face learning experience. To enhance the online learning experience, consider the following best practices:

• Raise metacognitive awareness: Online learning requires autonomy and learning strategies. If learners do not have effective strategies, it is important that you suggest some to them and encourage them to try. For instance, suggesting students log on to the course site on certain days and plan regular weekly study times would help students who lack time management skills.

• Use a learner-centered approach: When designing the curriculum and class activities, have “the end” in mind. This means you need to determine learner needs and course goals from the start. The selection and arrangement of the content should be consistent with your course goals. Class activities should be designed in a way that encourages learner exploration and collaboration. In a successful hybrid or fully online course, the instructor serves as a facilitator who guides learning, gradually releasing control and responsibility of what to learn and how to learn to the students. For example, a forum could allow students to discuss carefully designed real-world application questions. Learner-moderated discussions can be implemented following initial examples of instructor-led discussions. Collaborative learning activities help build interpersonal relationships among learners. By adopting a learner-centered approach, you can enhance learner-content and learner-learner interaction.

• Maintain your online presence: To help prevent learners from feeling isolated and ultimately frustrated, a visible and consistent instructor presence will show that you are there to provide guidance. Let your students know how frequently you will be on the course site. Logging onto the course site frequently, replying to emails promptly, making comments on class discussion forums and chatting with students on the course site will show that you are actively working with them. For instance, following the close of each discussion thread, consider providing a regular and immediate summary of each discussion in which you highlight students’ reactions and comments. This shows that you have read and value their contributions.

• Articulate connections and expectations: Learners need to see reasons and justifications for class activities. If they do not realize how an activity or assignment helps them achieve course goals, they may consider it busy work. Help learners understand connections between each assignment by providing a clear rationale. Show positive and negative examples to help students see what they should include in assignments. Develop rubrics for assignments with clear descriptors so your students know how they will be evaluated. This is especially important in a fully online course in which they may feel they are “left to figure things out” on their own.

• Integrate ongoing assessments and provide timely feedback: Online learning necessitates close monitoring of learning progress by both the instructor and learner due to its unique format. Although grading per se is not always necessary, constant evaluation of learners’ individual and collaborative work, including discussion forum comments, gives you opportunities to see their learning progress. Online learning can be an unfamiliar and daunting experience; learners appreciate timely feedback that lets them know if they are on the right track.

• Provide learner support: Learners need to become familiar with the course site you have built. Hence, a “tour” of the course site in the first class session will get them off to a good start. To provide optimal learning experiences, consider using various types of technology in order to promote learner-learner and learner-instructor interaction in hybrid and fully online courses. The technologies include wikis, blogs, text-based and/or voice-based discussion forums and collaborative mind mapping tools. Even though many students are tech-savvy, you should offer user training before a specific technology is used for assignments.

Meiyi Song is a CIDDE instructional designer and teaching/learning consultant.

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