So far in this series of articles, we’ve covered some of the personal characteristics and the interpersonal skills associated with great online teaching. Some of these skills/characteristics might be considered natural elements of an online instructor’s personality, but many can be studied, learned, and practiced over time to build competencies necessary to effectively reach online learners.
In addition to these skills and characteristics, there are some areas of study that good online instructors “keep up with” in order to understand their online learners and what they need from the class. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the things that online instructors should seek to know as they venture to teach distance courses.
1) Characteristics of the Adult Online Learner
We discussed the importance of empathy in the virtual learning environment in an earlier article. Empathy is critical for building the online community, which turns an online class from a self-study to a personal growth opportunity that capitalizes on every mind in the classroom. One important way to cultivate that empathy is to know your audience. Who is a typical online learner?
Of course, there isn’t a straightforward answer to that. Online learners are diverse, yet there are some general themes that drive these students to take asynchronous, online classes as opposed to traditional, full-time on-campus courses. In general, these students fall in the “adult learner” category, meaning they are older than the typical 18-22 year old college student, have been working for some time, and have families of their own.
Their motivations for attending college are specific. They aren’t going to college because that’s the thing you do after high school. They want a better life for their families, they are burned out at their current job, and/or they have had a life experience that inspires them to go in a particular career direction. They are so driven that they will make financial, familial, and occupational sacrifices to go to school. These students comprise a large percentage of your online classroom. These are students who know what they want and are looking to you to help them get it.
One point that I like to make to traditional face-to-face instructors who are venturing to teach online for the first time is that a lot of adult learners have had previous experience in the traditional classroom. They started college, but didn’t finish for whatever reason. While they are driven to finish now, they may also carry some baggage from that experience, which some may have considered a failure experience. This makes them vulnerable. Part of the online teacher’s responsibility, then, is to help these students flip that thinking and see school as a place to learn, grow, and succeed and not as a place where they are evaluated or where they have to measure up. This is where having a relationship with their instructor is important.
A Google Scholar search or a search through your institution’s library database will yield several articles on the characteristics of the adult online learner and what they need from an online classroom. This is a good place to start. I’ll nod to this online e-book as a good reference: Online Education and Adult Learning: New Frontiers for Teaching Practice.
2) Adult Learning Theories
Distance and adult education is no longer in its infancy. Academics have been studying it for quite some time—since back in the days of mail-order correspondence classes. And, as scholars are wont to do, we have developed many theories of adult learning. While we don’t have to have to be expert practitioners of all of these theories, a general understanding of them is important. Many of us were never taught how to teach (it was just assumed if you are an expert in, say, American History, you should be able to teach it), so developing a generalist background in adult education theory is a way to compensate for this.
Here are some places to start in your Adult Learning Theory research:
Malcolm Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy
Howard McClusky’s Theory of Margin
Knud Illeris’ Three Dimensions of Learning
Peter Jarvis’ Model of Experiential Learning
3) How to Present the Material in Class
Ben Ambridge, in his TED Talk titled “10 Myths about Psychology, Debunked,” made a convincing point about the invalidity “learning styles.” He says that the idea that people have a way that they learn “best” is largely unsupported by science. He argues that people don’t have unique learning styles; rather, the information being taught is better presented in certain ways. You can’t teach someone to drive a car by talking them through it. We all want to see pictures when we are cooking from a recipe—its not because we are “visual learners” but because recipes are best presented visually. We don’t learn abstract concepts about physics by watching a ball drop from the sky—we need some written or verbal explanation to accompany it.
In other words, we don’t have to worry about discovering each of our students’ learning style and jumping through hoops pedagogically to accommodate. However, we can acknowledge that there is a tendency for online classrooms to present knowledge in one way—through the written word, be it .pdf lecture, e-book, Word document handouts, web links, etc. We should consider and investigate how the concept we are teaching is best taught. Maybe its not best taught through written explanation. Maybe we need to offer some video demonstration, or auditory cues, or to provide students with a kinesthetic experience of the material from behind their computers. All of this takes pre-planning, creativity, research, and collaboration prior to class starting.
Effective online teachers, then, do not simply present their material in an arbitrary variety of ways meant to capture the individual “learning styles” of their students. Instead, they investigate how their learning objectives are best presented and use those methods to reach the students. This often does mean that the material is presented in a “variety” of ways, but it’s to a point. Not just because “students learn differently.”
4) Practical Applications of Academic Theory
Seeking to apply theory to practical concerns is by no means particular to the online learning environment. Indeed, it’s an essential skill for any teacher wanting to drive a point home to his or her students. It’s something that interested and interesting teachers do anyway. But, I mention it here because practical applications are an integral part of several adult learning theories, including Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy and Jarvis’ Model of Experiential Learning. Knowles’ theory posits that adult learners need to know why they are learning something. Jarvis maintains that adult learners need to have an experience with the material in order to truly learn it.
What does this suggest that the online teacher do to bring an element of practicality, especially to “theory-heavy” classes? Here are a few ideas:
Find a TED talk that speaks directly (or maybe even indirectly) to the topic. TED talks illustrate how great thinkers are coming out of their Ivory Towers to use what they have learned to reach the global community, now and for the future. As a psychology teacher, this is one of my favorite methods of engagement. Short, inspiring talks that get students thinking with their fingers together!
Require students to consider how a theory described in the text is relevant to a current event—like the Baltimore riots, the behavior of ISIS, or the public’s reaction to a celebrity’s misbehavior. This works particularly well in the discussion forum environment.
Design individual assignments so that the output is something that the student will actually do when they are working in the field. Have clinical psychology students write a case report, public health students write a grant proposal, nursing students write a case note, education students decide what assessments they will use to evaluate a child with special needs, etc.
Require that a student perform an activity related to the material and present that experience either in an individual assignment or in the discussion board (i.e. have a social psychology student sit directly next to another person in a relatively empty movie theater and have them write about their experience).
Just some ideas! Would love to hear some of your ideas (comment below!)
5) School’s Policies and Procedures for Online Classrooms
Adjuncts who teach for one school in particular are usually pretty familiar with the online classroom policies and procedures for that institution. Adjuncts who teach for multiple colleges, however, are tasked with researching a lot of different policies. While some of these policies are similar across the board, others are more nuanced and specific to the school. In many instances, there is no formal training or explanation of these policies—you have to hunt them down on the school’s website. I have taught for one of the major for-profit online schools and am simply required to hit a radial button to “acknowledge” that I have read and understood the school’s very, very lengthy procedural document.
Of course we read such documents—all teachers, online or off, do and should. Online instructors, though, should be seek to be familiar with some specific information that helps their online classroom run smoothly and without problems that could interfere with the online learning process. Adhering to policies also gives students at that institution a consitent learning experience.
Carefully research your school’s policies on:
Use of social networks in the classroom
Use of outside technologies or websites in the online classroom
Student and teacher attendance
What constitutes minimum online “presence” (how many times students and instructors should post in week)
Feedback turn around time
Format of feedback
How to handle conflict in the virtual classroom
Knowledge of the above not only makes for more effective online teaching, it also provides the online instructor confidence and an identity as someone who “gets” this population and this job. I’m curious about your experience as they relate to these five points! Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you and see what you have to add or share.