Teaching online is not like working with students face to face. Instructors cannot rely on real-time feedback, such as students’ reactions and classroom atmosphere, to judge the effectiveness of an activity or indeed an entire lesson. A successful online experience depends on finding other means to connect with students. Teachers of online classes must see themselves not only as conveyors of information, but also as the centers of groups of people who, without help, may not feel part of a learning community. It is the responsibility of the online instructor to foster a sense of belonging that encourages both personal investment and group participation. A strong sense of presence, particularly that of the instructor, will counteract feelings of isolation and distraction that can cause online learners to disengage from even the richest course materials.
Creating a sense of community through presence is not hard, but it does take more effort than is needed in a regular classroom. Realizing the pedagogical importance of allotting time to cultivate presence during preparation and teaching is the first step in doing so. Assigning activities and using tools to promote personal interaction is the next. The following suggestions, while simple, can go a long way toward creating the same interpersonal connections that while often taken for granted in physical classrooms, are essential to the success of an online course.
Before the Course:
Take the time to introduce yourself. Include information that gives a sense of you as a person, not just as an educator. Provide photos of yourself and ask the students to share some, as well. Establishing an ongoing discussion forum or chat for informal (including social) interaction can make a class more fun, especially if the teacher participates in it regularly. Exciting ideas and fruitful collaborations often originate in online friendships, so it is important to provide a place for them to form.
During the Course:
- Be present. Establish regular, live office hours, either through synchronous chat, or preferably through videoconferences. If some participants have work or family responsibilities that prevent them from participating, provide them with other means of joining in discussions and with the opportunity to review transcripts or recordings of live interactions. Make sure students know that you are ready to meet with them on an individual basis at their request, and reiterate your willingness to communicate at regular intervals.
- Be proactive. Monitor assignment submissions and communicate with students about upcoming deadlines and late work. Contact people who never show up for office hours to convey your desire to get to know them personally. Showing that you are aware of and care about a student’s progress can get someone who’s having trouble back on track.
- Be communicative. Providing continuous feedback is the most effective way to make students aware of your commitment to their success. Comments should be clear and specific. Focus on how to improve the quality of work, instead of just assigning a grade. Let students know exactly what they have done well, rather than saying, simply, “good job.” The more clearly you articulate your expectations, the more likely you are to receive work that meets them. Let students know at the start of the course exactly how long it will take you to grade their work, and communicate where you are in the process if you get behind.
- Be a consistent and reliable participant in the group activities you have assigned. Don’t, for example, “pop-in” only to discussions weeks one and five. If students know they can depend on your presence, then they will look to you for guidance and support.
- Be upfront about your expectations regarding peer interactions and classroom behavior. A successful learning experience depends upon the freedom to experiment with new ideas. State that everyone’s contribution is valued and expected and that discourteous behavior will not be tolerated.
- Be reflective. Evaluate how the course is going as you teach it, and modify activities that are not working well. Think about ways to improve the course for its next iteration. Keep notes about how to keep content fresh and improve learners’ experiences.
- Be a facilitator. Give students ample opportunity to interact with their peers. Let them know that you will be monitoring the quality and quantity of their feedback. Impress upon them the importance of supporting their colleagues, as well as their shared responsibility to make the class a success for everyone.
After the Course:
Evaluate your experience as a teacher by asking yourself questions, such as:
- What activities were the most/least successful?
- What questions should have been asked, but weren’t?
- When did the students seem most confused?
- Did the course’s structure provide adequate time to complete assignments?
- How frequent and varied was assessment?
- Did the rhythm of the course give you, the instructor, enough time to teach the course effectively?
- What aspects of the course are most likely to need refreshing before the next offering?
Solicit student feedback and do your best to glean useful suggestions from it (all while taking it with a grain of salt). Pay attention to students’ experiences, as well as what they’ve learned. If there is negativity despite success, think about ways to promote a better sense of community.
Do not forget to ask yourself what you got out of the course. If your experience teaching did not meet your objectives, what might have happened? Your personal involvement as an instructor matters; having a good experience will help you teach a better course.