Welcome to the last in our series of articles on the “Effective Online Teacher.” So far, we’ve discussed some of the skills, knowledge, and characteristics of great online teachers. In this article, we will conclude with a few additional strengths associated with quality online teaching. These points can be thought of as places to begin research or to plan personal/professional development experiences.
1) Strong Academic Skills
The trend in higher education today is to hire instructors who have significant and current “real world” professional experience in their area of expertise. On the radio yesterday, I heard an advertisement for a local nursing program in which a current student of the school stated, “I like that I’m taught by instructors who are currently working as nurses at the hospital where I would like to work.” It’s a big part of marketing these days.
Indeed, professional work experience is climbing to the top of the requirements list for many colleges—online and off. However, this is not necessarily to the exclusion of what we tend to think of as more traditional requirements. In other words, sought-after online instructors not only are working in the field, but they are also strong in academic areas as well.
Effective online instructors are good writers, know how to integrate the extant literature in their area to draw conclusions, and see value in teaching students to find data to support their arguments. Not only are they knowledgeable about practical concerns “at work,” they also know how to model the academic side of things. This goes for undergraduate classes (where students may be preparing for graduate studies) and graduate classes (where students will eventually need to achieve scholar status upon graduation). So, good online instructors represent the best of both worlds—professional and academic.
2) Competency with Learning Management Systems (LMS)
As I write the 500-character job descriptions for the jobs listed on AdjunctWorld, I often find myself needing to squeeze in requirements regarding LMS experience. I see a lot of “Moodle experience required/a plus/strongly preferred” or “Candidates with background in Blackboard/Schoology receive special consideration.” But what if you taught for many years at a school where you used a proprietary LMS (as would be the case with University of Phoenix instructors) or if you have never taught via LMS before?
Effective online instructors are comfortable, or seek to achieve comfort with the Learning Management System they are using to teach their courses. The LMS is the classroom and, as in the face-to-face classroom, the teacher has to know what they are doing in it–where to stand, how to operate the visual aides, how to organize the space. Same goes for the LMS-based classroom, although it’s a bit more complicated than knowing how to turn the projector on.
LMSs do have some commonalities. If you are strong with Moodle, chances are you are equipped to learn Schoology or Blackboard more quickly than if you were an LMS novice. But, each LMS also has its idiosyncrasies. My advice to adjuncts wanting to gain LMS experience is to do one or all of three things:
- Take online classes yourself that use various LMS technology.
- Find online trainings for specific LMSs (there are a lot of these available. Moodle, an open-source platform, even offers a lot of free online trainings!).
- Make a connection (via LinkedIn or our AdjunctWorld community) with an instructor who uses the LMS you are interested in learning more about and pick his/her brain about the software and how to learn more about it.
I also like to tell adjuncts that having been an online student is often considered online or “LMS” experience as well. Some of the schools I review will write, “Online teaching experience or experience as an online learner preferred/required.” Being an online student is in some ways as valuable or close to as valuable as having been an online teacher before. Additionally, most all face-to-face classrooms these days have some LMS component, whether it’s for turning in papers or posting grades. This counts as some experience even if the class wasn’t completely online.
3) Comfort with Threaded Discussions
The discussion board is the heart of the online classroom. Effective online instructors know how to get the most out of these discussions. Some tricks of the trade include:
Knowing when to back out of the discussion and when to step in. The discussion board belongs to everyone and is not the instructor’s “stage”. The instructor, though, is tasked with guiding the discussion toward specific learning objectives. One approach is to allow students to speak to each other for a few posts and then the instructor can post a paragraph at the end of that thread that summarizes what the students are saying and what they might want to think about next. Don’t over do it, don’t under do it. Find the middle path, so to speak.
Knowing how to direct eyeballs. When we see a post we want to respond to, the tendency is to click “reply” and then write what we have to say and click “post” or “submit.” But, kind of like bloggers have to market their posts with catchy titles, online instructors should be mindful of the titles of their posts, which they are usually able to change with each reply they make.
When I taught for the University of Phoenix early in my online teaching days, I’d have a thread about two screens long where the titles read: “DQ 1 Week 3 due Thursday May 3” up to “Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: DQ 1 Week 3 due Thursday May 3”. The eyeball will lose those “Re:Re:Re:Re” posts, so be mindful of how to make the thread read more like story by changing titles. Suggest that students do the same thing.
Knowing where to direct students to connect them with each other and to prevent redundancy. I find this to be especially the case with Moodle, where each student’s original post is a new thread. Students are not required to participate in one big discussion thread, but in each other’s “mini-threads”. There can be some redundancy here and maybe a little disconnection, but there are ways to remedy this.
For example, if I read a thread by Bob and he’s saying essentially the same thing that Mary did in her thread and I replied to Mary’s thread, I might say something like this to Bob, “Great points you make here, Bob! Mary and I were just discussing the problems with radical behaviorism over in her thread as well. Seems like you two are like-minded when it comes to the importance of social learning theory. Join us over in her thread and we can continue to discuss!”
This prevents me from re-inventing the wheel and connects Bob and Mary as a way of strengthening the classroom community.
4) Comfort with Synchronous Technology
I think early on in the days of online education, online classrooms were trying to “compete” with or be more like traditional classrooms and often required synchronous sessions. There is a trend, I’m noticing, to get away from that—many online classrooms today are completely asynchronous. I am a fan of this trend as online students, and online instructors for that matter, are drawn to online education for precisely the asynchronous nature of it. How is an online class advantageous for a single working mother if she has to be online for class while she is at work? Or if she needs to find a babysitter for an hour in the evening so she can log into a synchronous session?
Still, some schools require a synchronous component. Further, synchronous technology can be very useful in other ways: Office hours, tutorials or screen shares for a student having trouble, or for class assignments where extemporaneous answers are important. Thus, some comfort with synchronous technology is necessary. These technologies may be embedded within the LMS in the form of text or video chat, or they can be more widely used software or aps like Skype, FaceTime, GoToMeeting, or Adobe Connect.
Experience is the teacher here, but effective online instructors prepare themselves in advance by doing their research and getting practice with such technologies in their personal lives (i.e. practicing FaceTime with friends or using a GoToMeeting session to catch up with family across the country). Seeking out formal trainings or locating a training manual is a good idea as well. If you are taking an LMS training, synchronous LMS features should be covered there.
5) Proficiency with Office Tools and Presentation Software
One of the requirements I tend to scan over when I’m considering a job description is “Candidate must be proficient with Office tools”—meaning the candidate needs to know how to use Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc. (or Mac or open-sourced equivalents). That requirement is so ubiquitous that I often don’t think twice about it. However, I am reminding myself now that some amount of competency with Office tools is important for the online instructor, who relies on word processing and presentation software for a myriad of things—from presenting material, to grading student work, to organizing emails (in the case of Outlook users).
Knowing how to use track changes and comments in Word, for example, is very useful when editing/providing feedback for student work. Knowing how to embed video or voiceover into a Powerpoint can really bring a written presentation to life for the learner. While most schools have tech support teams available to help, knowing a bit about the technology you require students to use in your class helps you help them when they are having trouble. For example, if you require students to use speaker notes in Powerpoint and a student writes you saying that they don’t know how to do that, you want to know how to help them.
People are starting to steer away from traditional Microsoft and Mac Office products and are more into using dynamic Web 2.0-based options for doing assignments and presenting material. Web-based, collaborative word-processing tools like Google Docs and presentation aps like Prezi and Slideshare are becoming increasingly popular because they tend to be more dynamic and allow for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. Becoming familiar with these programs would be a good idea as well.
6) Aware of FERPA Rules as The Pertain to Online Teaching
All teachers are expected to become intimately familiar with the Family and Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA), so that they adhere to all privacy rules when interacting with students. Because the web is inherently less private than the face-to-face classroom, online instructors need to be particularly wary of what information is posted where and what social media sources they may be using outside of the LMS that put students as risk.
Unintended disclosure of performance information in a discussion forum. If we are communicating with a student about anything related to their grade when it comes to a discussion forum post, that must not be handled in a public forum reply. Instead, it should be done privately through the LMS messaging system or other official grading channels. For example, it might be tempting to reply to a late student in the message board with something like, “Thanks for this post, Bill, but unfortunately I cannot grade it because its past the deadline.” This instructor just publicly told the class this student got a zero. Most of the time mistakes like this happen innocently (the instructor not realizing where they are posting), but it’s a violation or a potential one, regardless.
Mandatory use of outside-of-LMS social media sites to conduct class assignments. Some adult learners avoid social media accounts for personal reasons. When you require students to sign up for an account to participate in a graded class assignment, you are asking them to forgo some of their privacy. While there are more private ways of using social media than others (i.e. using a private group vs. personal page on Facebook), LMSs are uniquely designed for the higher education sector and incorporate FERPA rules within them. In most instances, the LMS is best for hosting mandatory class discussions, etc., although this is not to say that optional social media usage is forbidden. Knowing what the school’s policy is on social media usage would be important in making the distinction.
Many of the qualities listed in this article do not need to be fully mastered prior to teaching an online class (perhaps with the exception of FERPA)—experience is a good teacher. But the effective online instructor is always working these “muscles” so to speak, and seeking to develop competency and proficiency in these areas in order to reach their virtual learners.
What are your thoughts? What other strengths are important for online instructors to develop? Comment below!