Five Best Practices for Teaching Online Classes

Five Best Practices for Teaching Online Classes
The Editorial Team May 16, 2013

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Teaching online classes can be fascinating for either novice or seasoned instructors. Whether you are contemplating online teaching for the first time or already teach online, following best practices will make the learning experience—for you and your students—more rewarding.

Today, a wealth of expert knowledge about excellence in online education is available both in print and online. Many of the perceived negative aspects of online teaching have a positive complement. In a well-designed online course, you may be pleasantly surprised by the extent to which discussions are more intellectually satisfying than in impromptu classroom conversation. This is because online interaction is usually asynchronous (not simultaneous), requiring the student to invest some time and thought into his/her posts.

1. Model good communication

Because the online environment is unfamiliar to students as well as teachers, you can address their fear of the impersonal interface, of feeling like “just a number,” by providing warm, positive feedback on a regular basis. There are several aspects to making feedback effective:

  • Show some personality. Because it’s harder online for students to see body language, hear your voice and get to know you informally in the corridors, make an extra effort to reveal what you are like. Show that you are an interesting human being, just like them.
  • Mix casual chat and purposeful discussion. The more you can foster a comfortable, friendly climate, the more students will be engaged and reveal their own personalities.
  • Give early feedback. Make a particular effort to respond quickly to their first assignment. Because students cannot as easily intuit your evaluation style, providing early feedback—even if brief and incomplete—will allay their anxieties. Check in no later than Week 3 with students who have not yet participated in the course.
  • Design assignments with meaning. Avoid busywork. Because the online interface is labor-intensive, students will be more sensitive to how relevant each task is to the content learned.

2. Be open to adjustment and constructive feedback

Especially if you are a novice at teaching online, show your willingness to receive input from students about what is and is not working well. Today’s young people have grown up with technology, and may well be able to give you innovative tips on how to make things run more smoothly. In turn, your willingness to incorporate their ideas will greatly encourage their thoughtful engagement with the group, with the content, and with you.

3. Balance content coverage and personalization

Think about why your students are taking a course online in the first place. They may need the flexibility. They may find the online environment exciting and far more “natural” than older people do. Either way, they will benefit from as many possibilities for individualizing and customizing their learning as you can provide. We live in an era of customized phone accessories, social media profiles, online shopping wish lists and more. Therefore, opportunities to select readings or choose from a range of assignments will greatly enhance student engagement by enabling their learning to be more relevant.

4. Design well-structured and flexible timelines

Be sensitive to the greater possibility for technical problems, and allow more flexibility in your deadlines than usual. If you assign group projects, consider the additional time required for students to contact each other in an asynchronous environment (and even across time zones, if applicable), when you plan your timeline. Perhaps allow rolling assignment submissions or partial submissions.

5. Make content as easily accessible as possible

When providing links to websites, try to choose sites that are easily accessible and don’t require complex navigation or lengthy times to load. Make sure the links and instructions to find your school’s tech support are prominent.

Ultimately, some of these best practices are not so very different from those applicable within the physical classroom.

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