Friday, October 8, 2010

10 Things You Need to Know About Being an Online Teacher

(Below is my presentation for Monday, 1:45 at ITEC).

More and more, I receive random emails or calls from those with an interest in teaching online.  The reasons for their interest are different; some are looking at retirement and see this as a more flexible way to stay in teaching, others see themselves as changes agents for educational delivery, be it a constructivist pedagogy or a tech-infused classroom, and online learning is the next frontier.  Some in this rough economy see teaching online license renewal courses as a decent part-time job that allows them to keep their present position.  And still others are being asked to by administrators.

Whatever the reasons, my responses are usually the same.  Online teaching is not easy.  Whether you thought so or not, you have to understand that it isn't as simple to do what you do in a face-to-face classroom, only this time with a keyboard.

I've seen several good face-to-face teachers who are not able to teach online (and vice versa).  It is a completely different skill set.  Not an impossible one, mind you (and certainly one we need to learn as a state).  But it is different.

Here are the ten pieces of advice (not in importance, but rather in terms of when you'll encounter them) that I would recommend for any person looking to become an online teacher:

#10. Take an Online Course 
Or five.  You'll learn more from being a student in an online environment than you will researching it.  You will see first hand what type of organizational structure or communication patterns work for you and what don't work at all.

Of course, a problem is that there are currently many bad online courses out there.  My wife recently completed one where she was asked to read the two articles and make two reflective posts in the forum each week for 9 weeks.  And that's it.  She never discussed the content with her instructor or fellow classmates... it was simply a sequence of hoops to jump through for her credit.  So, take the course with a critical eye, and take a variety of courses to gain some perspective.  This one step will help you not just at the beginning, but throughout your online teaching career.

#9. Online Teaching is Time Consuming... Have a Plan!
You know, when I receive evaluative feedback from my participants at the end of the course, the most frequent comment is how surprising the amount of work is.  They were thinking an online course would be less work than a face-to-face course.

The same misperception holds true for the teacher as well.  It takes a considerable amount of time to read student's work, answer student questions, communicate through announcements, etc.  Your evening hours can quickly evaporate.  What makes it worse, students who are used to getting an answer immediately in a face-to-face class will wonder why you haven't emailed back to their question (it's been 5 minutes already!!!).

For your own sake, have a plan of when you will be teaching.  Block out some time from your schedule.  And communicate this plan to your students.  Let them know that Wednesday is "Church Night" and you will be busy, or Saturday morning is spent watching each of your sons' flag football games.  Let them know when you will be grading assignments, and how frequently you respond to questions.  The more up front planning and communication you can add, the more sane your life will be.  Which leads us to...

#8. Communication Online IS Different
You probably already get the whole netiquette, "You-don't-know-how-they-will-interpret-sarcasm-online-so-don't-use-it" thing.  And yes, use emoticons.

But there is much more.  As an instructor, you have to use many different tones, be it analytical, informal, inquisitive, humorous, concerned, reassuring, or more.  You have to know how to phrase things positively, even when students aren't reading the directions (which you will be tested on even before your first class starts).  And, you need to know when and how to jump in to online discussions, helping steer them to the learning outcome you desire, without people knowing you are steering them.

#7. Remember, Online Students Have Issues, Too
Which, is better stated as "Online Students have Needs".  They will need to have clarity about assignments, meaning you will need to provide many levels of support.  That includes a "Question & Troubleshooting Forum", screencast tutorials showing how to navigate the site, and virtual office hours for asking questions.

But the bigger needs are social needs.  Students need to get to know other people.  Research out of UW-Madison has shown an interesting phenomenon:  When students rate the quality of online courses, even if they are in the exact same course, they will pick different reasons why it was a good course or not.  But actually, the biggest constant for good courses vs. bad courses is something that appears later in the survey... how well did you get to know your fellow students.  Even though participants can't articulate this, their perception of being in a close social group in class makes the class good.

Social presence can be built in several different ways.  How you have students introduce themselves is critical.  How you have them keep connected at the end of the class is critical.  And, how you structure assignments so that there is honest interaction, requiring a person to converse with others is critical.  As a beginner online teacher, this is a hard area to perfect right away.

#6. Flexibity... and yet, structure
Online courses are synonymous with being flexible.  "Any time, place or pace" is the mantra.

Well, that's not quite correct.  Flexibility is important, even more so than in a face-to-face environment.  In addition to differences of prior knowledge, learning preferences, and favorite topics, online courses bring in differences of technological proficiency and technological access (doing certain online activities on dial-up = not fun).  So, it is important to provide choices for students.

But, that doesn't mean you don't have due dates.  Letting students wait until the last day of class where they turn everything in is a recipe for disaster.  Items like pacing charts help students budget their time to meet weekly due dates.  And with each choice, you will want to provide models of the desired outcome as well as the steps to get there, so students can see clearly the path of their learning.  Without this structure, students are left wandering the great desert of online courses.

#5. Need-to-know vs. Nice-to-know
The most common mistake a new teacher make is putting too much into their course, not too little.  Myself included.  I haven't had a course yet where I haven't taken out considerable portions after teaching it the first time (I know... if you have taken my course, you are allowed to say "No Fair!")

When you design your course, be sure you clearly identify what you want your students to know, and then stick to it.  If you have other material, clearly identify it as "Enrichment" that participants can learn on their own.

#4. Make it Interactive
This video really says it all:

Interaction isn't jump-through-the-hoops forums. Your class need to have high quality multi-media, simulations, scenario-based activities, and role-playing.

#3 You can't just take everything off the internet
Take some time to understand copyright, including Creative Commons.  Copyright for an online classroom is very grey at the moment.  While you are a teacher and you are guided by fair use policies, you also are putting things on the web.  There is debate right now between whether a learning management system like Moodle is an online classroom or a webpage (which has a great impact on whether you can use items through fair use).

#2 Rethink assessment
How could you assess student ability to graph inequalities online?  How about singing?  Physical agility and endurance?  Oral speaking?

Not everything can be taught online, but more can than you think.  A common mistake is, for a performance-based objective, an online teacher will require non-performance-based assessment.  Taking a multiple-choice quiz to see how well you can sing, for example.  There are a multitude of tools out there, be it podcasting or data-collection tools (heart-rate monitors and video cameras for a PE class, for example).  Don't settle for inferior forms of assessment.

#1 Make it fun
You know which face-to-face courses are fun within minutes of being in them.  The instructor has a personality, uses humor, and doesn't take themselves too seriously, making everyone feel relaxed and safe to learn in the process.  That's harder to do online, but just as critical.  How can you make your course fun right away?

From the moment you introduce yourselves to your students, let them know your personality.  Use personal anecdotes.  Use a theme throughout the course (best online course I took was from a Disney nut, who kept putting random images of Walt Disney World throughout the course).  And, be sure to show them you are not perfect either.  Show them how you have learned the content you are currently teaching, and point out some of the mistakes you made at the beginning too.  All of these things make the course more enjoyable and safe for students.

1 comment:

john smith said...

I think that the key thing you outline here is that we should be "modelling the behaviors we expect of digital citizens in the classroom everyday." Just as we act as a model of behaviour and language to our students we should be doing this.

One thing that should also be noted is how younger children are engaging with different types of technology, including the social kind.