Adjunct instructors who have excellent teaching skills and engaging personalities in the traditional classroom environment already have many of the characteristics necessary to be effective online instructors. They know their subject area, love teaching, and are invested in their students.
However, the two delivery modalities are different and there are some additional qualities that make for better online instructors above and beyond what is required for face-to-face instructors. If you are wondering if you have what it takes to be an effective online educator consider the following list of 7 Characteristics of Effective Online Teachers:
1) Passion about the Subject
Why does this belong in a list specific to online instructors? Shouldn’t all college instructors be passionate about their discipline? Yes! But, this needs saying for the following reason: Most online students are adult learners. They are often burned out from their current profession and looking for something new. They have been inspired to go back to school (and make all of the requisite financial, work, and family sacrifices needed to do so) and are excited to learn. They have a fire in them and they want to see that same fire in their instructor. They need help keeping it burning while they are balancing everything in their lives.
Put another way, a 19 year-old in one of my undergrad psychology classes is interested in psychology but still figuring out what she wants to do and has interest but no fire. A 35-year old student has her sights on being a psychologist. There is a difference there. And herein is why an online instructor should be excited about their field – what a bummer it would be to have just committed to a degree program to go into a field and then have an instructor who is burned out from their industry, bored or boring, or disillusioned by the state of things in their field.
2) Passionate about Teaching
This makes the list for the same reason as number one. Adult learners are looking for mentors, really. Not just teachers. Every online teacher they come across is a potential mentor for them and they can quickly sniff out those who aren’t engaged in the teacher-student relationship. Teachers who don’t fully engage in the weekly discussions, who don’t respond to emails, or who provide canned and minimal feedback on assignments are turn offs. They are deflating and don’t necessarily inspire the motivation or critical or creative thinking that adult learners are hoping for.
3) Sees Value in Online Education
I teach traditional college instructors how to teach online. Vulnerability about teaching online is common. Many wonder if they can translate what they do face-to-face to the online environment. For some, vulnerability takes the form of questioning whether their class going online is a good idea at all. They have opinions regarding the quality of education that online students receive versus on ground students. Some simply question it, other are strongly opposed and are very upset that they are being forced to teach online. All of those feelings are fair, but with any job if you believe in the purpose, if you see value in what it is you do, you will naturally be better at it. That’s why I suggest teachers who are uncertain about the value of online education take an online class for themselves. Not necessarily to “get on board” but to at least develop a clearer understanding of what the thing they fear or dislike actually is. Often, the traditional instructors in my training courses who have a negative view of distance education express that they had a better online learning experience than they had anticipated.
4) Is a Good Time Manager
Most online courses are asynchronous, meaning there is not set time to be in class and that discussions are going on in the classroom at all hours of the day all week long. No, online instructors don’t need to be online and teaching 24/7, but they are required to have a frequent presence in class, in contrast to having a set day/days during the week when they are standing in front of the class. Thus, the effective online instructor develops his/her own system for being present throughout the week.
There is also a bit more writing involved when teaching online—facilitating discussion board assignments representing the bulk of that additional writing. This competes, to some extent, with the grading of and providing detailed feedback for other class assignments. Another nod to the need for online instructors to be effective time managers. When essay grading time comes around, you’ll want to be ready, willing, and able to provide detailed, formative feedback on those assignments while still participating in the week’s discussion thread.
5) Is Flexible and Open to Feedback
Adult learners and millennials want to feel a part of their learning experience. Adults because they have an array of personal and professional experiences to bring to the table. Millennials because they have had access to the world wide web of information since they were children and think they know a thing or two about what you are saying/doing (and, they may actually really know a thing or two!). The effective online teacher is aware of this and is empathetic to their students’ need to have some control or input and will allow for that in the classroom. This is exemplified in the statement, “Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” Take their enthusiasm, experience, and knowledge and use it and adapt to it, whether they are sharing a video or experience with the rest of the class in the discussion board or asking for an assignment to change from an essay to a Prezi presentation. In general, the best teachers are lifelong learners themselves, constantly evolving. So any information that leads to improvement should be valued and listened to.
6) Facilitates Classroom Community with Engaging Tone and Creativity
Without a solid online classroom community, online classes can feel like self-studies. The effective online teacher is aware of the importance of the community feel and will use a professional, yet warm and informal tone in their posts, use collaborative learning assignments, and utilize other creative approaches to engage the community. School is not Facebook, but in a way we are trying to capture the same idea that social media is—to help the individual sitting there at their computer feel tied into the class and tied into the material.
So, if something a student said was appropriately humorous, it’s okay to digitally laugh. For example:
“Ha! Mark that’s funny, you made me giggle – Freud was a bit limited in his scope, eh? It does seem he focused overmuch on sexuality. His colleagues (Jung and Adler perhaps being the loudest) thought so, too. They believed there was much more to human development and expanded their theories to include things like social factors. What did you think about Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious?”
Or, if a student puts themselves out there with a personal example, the instructor should acknowledge it, like:
“Hi Kristy! Thank you for sharing that story with us. It really demonstrates how two siblings who are brought up in the same home environment can evolve into two completely different personalities. This shows the power of the non-shared environment. I am hopeful for your sister in her recovery and I’m sure she appreciates that support you and your family are giving her.”
In our article Questions Without Answers – A Tip for Good Discussion Board Prompts, we offer some additional insights into how to use the discussion area of class to community build and establish a personal, collaborative atmosphere conducive to deep learning.
7) Trained in Online Teaching
I strongly suggest that adjuncts seeking to teach online take a training course or at least take several online courses themselves (as a student). This not only looks great on a CV, but also helps you become more comfortable with common Learning Management Systems (like Blackboard or Moodle). You learn how to use them effectively and with all the bells and whistles that could bring your learning objectives to life. Good training programs will familiarize teachers with the unique needs of the adult online learner, offer guidance when it comes to facilitating effective and engaging discussion boards, share ideas about bringing material to life through interactivity, video/voiceover, etc., and go over the benefits and problems associated with using outside Web 2.0/3.0 technologies in the classroom. One of the most important things to familiarize yourself with is FERPA rules as they pertain to internet security.
Have any questions about the characteristics of an effective online educator? Have something to add to this list (it’s certainly not exhaustive!)? Comment below!