Tips for Training Online Instructors

Greg Kearsley

 

 

This article discusses some strategies and techniques for preparing instructors to teach online. For more background about online learning/teaching, see http://home.sprynet.com/~gkearsley/cyber.htm

 

Introduction

 

In a traditional classroom, the class begins at a specific time with the teacher at the front of the room, who talks and writes on the board (and might show some slides). Students take notes and occasionally might ask a question (“Is this going to be on the exam?”). When the time is up, everyone hustles away quickly. The instructor has little idea of what the students might have learned – nor do the students themselves.

 

In an online classroom, the course begins and ends on a certain date. Apart from any real-time events (i.e., chats or conferences), students participate in the class when (and where) they wish. The read email and discussion forum postings and reply to them. They may upload assignments as files. The instructor reads and responds to all student work and questions – usually on a daily basis. Both instructors and students have a good idea of what they are learning.

 

As this comparison suggests, the nature of teaching/learning in the two settings is quite different. In the classroom setting, the instructor primarily presents information and students try to remember it. In the online course, students do assignments and instructors try to provide students with helpful feedback on them.  The latter involves a lot more participation and interactivity for both students and instructors.

 

Given that the two settings are different, instructors need retraining in order to teach online.

 

Online teaching is not for everyone

 

However, its not just a matter of retraining – there are certain personality characteristics required. Online instructors must be willing to spend at least 1-2 hours every day at the computer reading and responding to students. Anyone who cannot do this is not very well suited to online teaching.

 

Extensive travel is not conducive to online teaching because of the hassles of getting online from various locations, although in this age of ubiquitous WIFI and broadband, it really shouldn’t be a problem.

 

You must like interacting with students on a one-to-one basis.  You must also like troubleshooting/problem-solving – since you will do a lot of that.  And you need to have a lot of patience to deal with technology on a daily basis.

 

Since most of your interaction will be written in nature, you have to like to write. It also helps to be able to type relatively fast.

 

You need to have first-hand experience

 

Anyone who teaches online needs to have some first-hand experience as an online learner to understand what it means to learn this way. The importance of clear directions, well-organized materials, timely feedback, deadlines, and good technical support becomes apparent as an online learner.  I don’t think you can learn how to teach online by attending a classroom workshop – even if it involves hands-on activities. Its not the same experience and doesn’t prepare you properly.

 

You must also have a high comfort level with the particular online tools/system used to deliver the course, so you can anticipate likely student problems and provide help when they have trouble. Students are going to model your use of the tools/system, so you want to show how they can be used effectively.

 

Use both synchronous & asynchronous modes of interaction

 

People differ on their preference for synchronous (chats, conferencing) or asynchronous interaction (email, forums). Some like the excitement and spontaneity of real-time events. Others prefer the reflective nature and flexibility of asynchronous interaction. Synchronous activities are good for question and answer or review sessions while asynchronous activities work well for discussions, problem-solving and information sharing. However, synchronous events require scheduling which is especially problematic when participants are distributed over many time zones and have different preferences for daytime or evening sessions.

 

For training instructors, it is best to ensure that they have experience with both modes of interaction so they can decide what they like, and also be prepared to use either if the appropriate learning situation arises.

 

Strive to make the class as interactive as possible

 

Teachers need to understand that interactivity is the key to a successful online course. The more interaction students have with the content, the instructor and each other (especially the latter), the better.  This is partly a function of providing ample feedback to students on their assignments, but is also a function of the design of the course. Assignments must require students to interact with each and the instructor in terms of sharing ideas, providing critical analysis, comparing results, suggesting improvements, and so on.

 

Chat sessions and discussion forums are the best places for interaction to take place since they allow for participation by the whole class. On the other hand, instructors are likely to use email or annotated files for providing feedback to students on their assignments or answering questions.

 

Providing timely and meaningful feedback

 

If there is one fundamental rule for online instructors it is that timely feedback should be provided to students on their assignments, questions or forum postings. Ideally such feedback should be provided in less than 24 hours. Even if a full response can’t be provided, at least an acknowledgement should be sent.

 

Meaningful feedback means more than just a sentence saying the student is doing well. Students want substantive comments on their work. This means the feedback needs to identify the strengths/weaknesses of a response, questions about assumptions made, or suggestions for further thought/investigation.

 

The lack of timely and meaningful feedback from instructors is the number one complaint from online learners. The main cause of the problem is that instructors are not online frequently or long enough to provide such feedback.

 

Make use of offline media

 

While someday all the content needed for a course will be available online, this is not currently true. Plus, most students don’t have suitable computers with high quality displays to make a lot of online reading feasible. So, recommending a textbook for background reading is a good idea. Online study notes in the course can comment on the content in the text and provide supplemental information.

 

It is also a good idea to design your course so that online materials can be printed out easily. This means providing course materials in a single document rather than (or in addition to) many separate screens.

 

Encourage learners to learn from each other

 

The real power of an online course is what students learn from each other. A primary task of the instructor is to facilitate as much student interaction as possible. This can be done by having students do their assignments in pairs or small groups. Asking students to evaluate each other’s work and to make class presentations are also good ideas. Students should be encouraged to address their questions to the class, rather than just the instructor.

 

Introduce an exploratory spirit

 

Because online teaching/learning involves so many new things, it is important to establish an exploratory spirit among all participants that emphasizes experimentation and problem-solving. Information and ideas can be obtained quickly from searching the web. Students should encouraged to think about alternative options and multiple perspectives in their assignments. The online world is a multicultural, multidimensional society and participants should get used to it.

 

Since hardware, software and network problems are a continuing aspect of the online experience, everyone must develop basic  troubleshooting skills. Indeed, online instructors will spend a considerable amount of time troubleshooting problems with the delivery system or authoring tools.

 

Create assignments first

 

Course assignments define the nature of interaction in an online course. Questions to be answered by email or discussion posting create one kind of interaction; group projects with presentations create another kind. Because they dictate the nature of participation, it is a good idea to create the assignments first, then add the other course components (i.e., readings, study notes, overviews). Creating the assignments also defines the instructional objectives of the course since they specify what the student will be doing and learning.

 

Let people find their own teaching style

 

There are many different ways of teaching online and each instructor needs to find their own style. Some teachers are comfortable playing a background role whereas others feel they must be very visible to students. Some instructors are happy to rely completely on a text or readings for content whereas others feel they must provide it. Some like email and chat sessions; others like discussion forums and file uploading.

 

To allow instructors to discover what kind of online teaching works best for them, they need to be exposed to as many different types of online courses as possible. And a lot of trial and error is required. In other words, the process of becoming an online instructor requires a lot of online learning.

 

Conclusions

 

Because online teaching is so different, even experienced teachers will require considerable practice before becoming good online instructors. So it is going to be a while before most teachers are good at this. Organizations and institutions offering online courses should be mindful of the time period required to properly prepare their teachers to teach in cyberspace.