In recent years, with the advent of new technologies, distance learning has exploded in popularity. Not only are traditional colleges and universities offering entire degrees online, but for-profit online institutions have emerged, offering all sorts of degrees – from the associate’s degree to a Ph.D. – completely online. Additionally, many high schools now offer opportunities for students to “recover” credits that they failed in a traditional face-to-face classroom or to accelerate their graduation date by taking extra courses online. Online study has many advantages, chief among them is the flexibility it offers to students who work full-time and students who have families.
Online instruction does not merely appeal to the student population, however. Teaching online has become a desirable occupation for many teachers who were previously in traditional classrooms. Although many people may be of the opinion that online instructors are completely living “the good life” – sunning by the pool and checking in with their courses every couple of days. In the case of effective online instructors, that could not be further from the truth. Committed online instructors spend at least as much time managing their courses, responding to students, and reading and grading work as their counterparts in “brick and mortar” classrooms. Indeed, there are many qualities that set apart effective online instructors from ineffective ones.
It is very important that online instructors have significant, current knowledge in the area in which they are teaching. In traditional classrooms, you would not expect to see an expert in American history teaching physical science. Likewise, anyone who is teaching an online course should have a strong background in the content and should not be teaching far out of their field. Some universities employ course designers so that they may provide already-designed courses for the instructors. In those situations, the instructor is not expected to develop assignments and create tests but guide the students through the course, offering constructive feedback and grades on assignments. To provide adequate, instructive feedback to the students, the instructor must understand and be familiar with the content of the course.
As important as knowing the content is knowing the pedagogy, or best teaching practice, for online coursework. First, online instructors must first decide whether their course will be student-paced (in which the student works at his/her own pace through the assignments) or instructor-paced (in which the teacher sets due dates for each assignment and test, in order to move along all of the students at approximately the same pace). Second, online teachers must decide whether all of the work is going to be synchronous (meaning the students have to be online at the same time, such as for a lecture) or asynchronous (meaning the students can get online at their convenience). Most students prefer asynchronous work, and due to the abilities of instructors to include video clips, videos of lectures, discussion boards, and other online tools, this has become popular with instructors as well.
In addition to these foundational decisions, instructors must be aware of best practices related to grading, academic reporting, student privacy, and working with students with disabilities. Many of these areas are not only governed by university policy, but by federal law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Internet technology has advanced at a remarkably fast rate, and it is incumbent upon online instructors to keep up. Of course, online instructors should have basic technology literacy, such as the ability to send e-mail with attachments, the ability to develop spreadsheets, and the ability to easily navigate the internet. However, truly effective online instructors can do much more. They can not only link videos into their courses, but they can produce video lectures for students to access. They can not only communicate through basic channels like e-mail and discussion boards, but they can create podcasts of their content, and communicate with Millennial students through social networking sites such as Facebook. They can not only design meaningful assignments and select appropriate course content, but they can arrange them within the course so that it is user-friendly and intuitive for their students.
Most universities offer specialized training for new online instructors. In this training, the instructors learn to utilize the online course management system used by the university. In fact, most training consists of several weeks, in which the instructors are placed into a “class” as if they were students. In the training, the instructors complete tasks that allow them to practice the technology skills required for teaching the course (e.g., posting to the discussion board, manipulating content and assignments, and accessing and using the gradebook).
A Teacher’s Disposition
Whether one teaches in face-to-face settings or online, effective instructors always have the disposition of a teacher. They consistently engage with the students, promoting discourse and instructive feedback, in order to enhance student learning. Primarily, just like a traditional teacher, an online instructor must be most interested in student achievement. If that is the case, he or she will feel an intrinsic obligation to help students learn as much as possible.
Online instructors must be motivated and self-directed; it could certainly be easy to fall into the “sunning by the pool” example given earlier. It does take a certain amount of self-discipline to check in with the courses daily, grade submitted assignments, and respond to e-mails and discussion posts rather than get caught up in other activities at home.
For instructors who teach online and do not take part in a traditional college campus, it can be a challenge to connect with other professionals. Effective online instructors make the effort to continue their membership in professional organizations, attend conferences, read journals, and take part in professional development opportunities. This attitude of life-long learning is not only a good model for their students, but it also increases instructional effectiveness.
Although online instructors and traditional instructors have very separate distinctions in the world of education, there are truly more similarities than differences. Both have to be committed to spending large amounts of time developing their students’ knowledge and understanding. Both must have significant, current content and pedagogical knowledge, and be technically proficient. Finally, both must have the disposition and heart of a teacher, keeping their students’ achievement as a central focus.