The Do’s and Don’ts of Online Teaching by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator
When I began to compile my materials to talk about the do’s and don’ts of online teaching, I typed in “The Do’s and Don’ts of Online Teaching” to see what the web had to offer—and got 45,600,000 hits.
This is the environment we’re in—everything has gone online. What once was a specialized type of teaching and a particular profile of student is now necessary for everyone.
Back when I first started teaching online, first, I was very nervous because I know my strength as a teacher is jumping up and down and telling stories and generating energy and excitement in the room, and this is significantly more challenging through a computer or phone screen. I had to do a pretty in-depth self-examination to figure out how I could use my strengths and shore up my weaknesses to thrive in the virtual world.
Second, I had to prowl around and find out what everyone else was doing and see if it inspired me or if I wanted to go in another direction. Mostly, I wanted to go in another direction. It boiled down to why I got into teaching in the first place, which was to connect with people and make a difference—I wanted my work to have a positive impact on the future of others. So how could I meet their needs and my own (the desire to make a difference) in this clinical, sanitary environment?
Third, the type of student who signed up for online classes –up until last spring—was the type of student who generally knew a great deal about themselves and what they needed to do in order to succeed. They had reliable internet, they usually worked a couple of jobs or had children, they reached out when they had questions or problems, they did not passively take in information but sent emails and emails, and more emails until they got what they needed. In fact, at ICC where I taught, the college sent out a letter to all students who registered for online classes, asking them to do a self-assessment to be sure online learning was a good match for them. It included questions about their comfort with technology, their ability to self-monitor their progress, and their willingness to be intrinsically motivated about their own education.
Now all bets are off. Everyone has had to do the COVID pivot, converting their lesson plans to online whether they like it or not, and in the relative blink of an eye. And 10 months in, the expectation is that everyone should be good at it, right? We’re teachers! We can do all things!
This is the challenge. Not all subjects are terrific in the virtual world. Not all students can sit still and passively take in information in a 2D format. Not all teachers are familiar enough with technology to make it work for them instead of them working for it. People are struggling with isolation, anxiety, depression in addition to having to adapt to this new normal.
What we can do is learn from our peers about what works, what doesn’t, and what we have to contribute to the conversation.
This is the point in the broadcast where I was hoping for a little help from my teacher community. I sent out a notice a couple of months ago (and many times since) for you all to send in clips or passages detailing your best victory in the virtual world.
At first, I felt like I was sending my message out into the void, and then I decided not to take it personally and realized that it’s because you are all swimming so hard to try to keep up with the current that you don’t have time to stop. I apologize for not thinking of that ahead of time, and I have gathered my own examples of online inspiration. Hopefully, these will help you.
Answer these questions:
- What is the best thing about your teaching that you can incorporate into the online learning environment?
- What kind of relationship do you want to have with your students?
- Have you thought about the world of your class? Can you describe it?
- Have you populated this world with enough to make it truly 3-dimensional (diverse, dynamic, data-driven)?
- Is your course organized enough that someone who is not you can make sense of it?
- Have you articulated your course goals clearly and repeatedly, tying all of your activities to them?
- Have you created a detailed syllabus, with course policies and expectations clearly outlined? How have you adapted your attendance policy? What do you consider participation in this new reality?
- Have you created a discussion board so students can communicate with each other?
- Have you created a Frequently Asked Questions page?
- How much time are you committing to each course’s preparation?
- Are deadlines for work clearly posted and re-posted so students can see them easily?
- Are you using advance organizers to help them track their learning? i.e., here’s what’s happening this week or your weekly calendar, etc…
- How often do you check your email? Are there times when you won’t? Is that posted anywhere?
- Are you using synchronous or asynchronous learning?
- Are you grading work promptly and returning it, and then posting grades so students can see their individual scores in a private manner?
- How are you dealing with stragglers, or those who are showing up but struggling?
- How do you feel about online learning? Do your students know how you feel about online learning?
Be honest as you answer these questions. You need an accurate portrait of what your online teaching IQ is.
Now you’re ready for the tips:
- Be patient, both with yourself and your students. We know that stressed brains don’t learn, so find ways to show your students that you understand the “assume crash positions” mentality that is the norm now.
- Engage with students via live chats, either for the class itself or for scheduled conferences. Be sure you post office hours when they can contact you. Your contact information should be easy to find since you will sprinkle it liberally throughout your online classroom.
- Use activities that require interaction—surveys, collaborative projects, etc… There are user-friendly apps out there that can help, if you’re comfortable trying something new in the midst of all of this.
- It’s not just your job to teach the content; sometimes you have to teach the students how to use the tech. Leave time for this! You may have to go the extra mile and create instructional videos or screencasts or screenshots for this. If you’re working within a college setting, your Teaching and Learning Center can help you with this—many have already created these tools.
- Use the tools you know. Yes, it’s good to add tools to your toolbelt, but begin with those with which you feel most comfortable. Expand your repertoire as you go. Model that willingness to take risks that we need in our students. And when you try something new, you don’t have to be perfect at it! Tell your students, “Hey, I’m trying a new toy! Let’s see how it works for our class!”
- Use Course Management Software. It really doesn’t matter which you choose, but pick one and then use it like it’s your debit card. Most good CMS programs have a lot of great tools in them— announcements, calendars, live chats, discussion boards, gradebooks, emails, journals, tests/quizzes, links to resources—the works. It’s like setting up your physical classroom—it gives everyone an address to come to find out all things related to your class.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. You cannot nurture minds if yours is overwrought.
- Don’t teach curriculum—teach students.
- Don’t forget to give choices so students can feel empowered, but don’t overwhelm them with too many. Find the balance.
- Don’t give more work because it’s an online class. Many studies have shown that teachers increase rigor in the online environment to overcompensate for not meeting in person. It makes no sense, and it does not improve outcomes. I knew a fellow teacher who jampacked his online classes with projects at the beginning of the semester to pare his class size down. This cannot be that, and frankly, that cannot be that, but I digress.
- Don’t do ALL asynchronous or all synchronous. Find a good mix that makes sense for the content you’re trying to cover. Have conferences via video chat at a scheduled time if your class doesn’t have a set meeting time. Find ways to create more interaction.
- Don’t expect everyone to read the directions on their own. You will have to hold hands. Over. And over. And over. For many, just having to use a computer is enough to have cortisol squirting into their brains, so their retention of new information will be minimal.
- Don’t expect the tech to work flawlessly every day. Have a plan to deal with technology issues. Be sure you have a tech support person on speed dial, and that you have done a test-run with new programs or visual or audio elements you want to include. Even this does not preclude issues. I, like every other online instructor, have a list as long as the Great Wall of times the tech failed me and what I had to do to wing it. Just know that at some point, you will have to wing it. Somehow, knowing it ahead of time takes some of the anxiety away.
- Don’t stop learning. I know everything having to do with the pandemic has been dreadful, but I will say that I have learned more technology in the last 10 months than I ever aspired to, and I feel pretty proud of myself for having adapted. I also have renewed empathy for students since learning involves failing a few times, too.
If you’re going to make changes, start small. Don’t wait until you’re reacting to a crisis—be proactive. One of the best things that ever happened to me was the first semester I was tapped to teach a class online—with about 3 days to prepare. Of course I didn’t think so at the time! I had to get organized. I had to codify all the miscellany that I had been using in the classroom. I recorded audio files of short stories; I had my husband come to my class to videotape my lectures so I could share them with my online learners. I had to make calendars for the whole semester, write detailed assignment descriptions (I’d say foolproof, but we know that’s not possible), fine-tune my course policies, procedures, and expectations, and create a learning “house” that anyone could walk into and understand the vision. It changed my whole teaching life, not just online.
See this as the watershed moment that it is for you in your teaching life. This attitude of finding opportunity amidst the uncertainty will definitely translate to your students.
For additional resources on online learning including some cool tools, see the list at the end of this article.
Welcome, 2021! I hope your year is starting off on a positive note.