7 Tips for Teaching Online

When colleges and universities started to offer classes online during the 1990s, it was hailed as the future of learning, as many institutions rushed to offer distance learning using the power of the Internet. In those pioneering days, however, educators tried to just replicate the physical classroom with which they were familiar. While it was a praiseworthy idea, this approach often missed the point in terms of the unique challenges and opportunities that the online environment presented.

With the advent of the Coronavirus, instructors in colleges across the country, who are more used to teaching face-to-face, are now being required to teach online, many for the first time. As someone who has been in online education for over a decade, and who has taught on both sides of the Atlantic, I have a few useful pointers to offer to help you be a good online instructor:

  1. Visible Presence – Students need to know that you are a daily and regular presence in the online classroom, and while that does not mean you have to be immediately available, you should be present in the announcements you make, the clarity of the feedback you give, and the prompt way you answer emails and other messages.
  2. Context – Remember that your students are deprived of the body language that provides the nuance to your words in the physical classroom. While you do not need to exaggerate your words, remember that the praise you give, or the constructive criticism that you provide, will be conveyed through the written word alone. Be careful how you choose your words and structure your feedback. Read it back to yourself to see if the meaning you intended is the way the student is likely to interpret it.
  3. Video – Video technology is ubiquitous and even the least expensive laptops have a webcam.  Recording an initial video at the start of the course can provide a powerful way to connect with your students. Summarize the previous week’s lessons and provide an overview of what to expect for the week ahead but remember to offer a written version for accessibility purposes. Video feedback for assignments or at the mid-term can provide a powerful and personal connection to your students.
  4. Be Flexible – A military student once apologized to me because he was unable to submit an assignment because the Taliban had “taken out their communication tower.” I did not hesitate to provide an extension. Now I am not suggesting that you will have students facing such extreme situations, but remember that someone working remotely may be facing multiple challenges, juggling home, family, and work, all while trying to complete their studies.
  5. Offer Your Discipline Expertise – As an online instructor, it is often tempting to see your role as just grading assignments but be sure to add your disciplinary expertise and use current events; for example, show contemporary relevance of what you are teaching. While teaching a class in international economics recently, I was able to illustrate our discussions regarding NAFTA with the negotiations then taking place about the agreement.
  6. Office Hours and Synchronous Learning – Be sure to advertise your availability with regularly posted office hours. Don’t forget to also use the opportunity for synchronous learning; if you do not have a dedicated learning management system, like Blackboard or Canvas, you can use freely available messaging platforms, like Skype or Zoom. Remember that not all your students will be able to attend a synchronous session, so use the recording option that platforms like Zoom and Skype offer and make it available to everyone after the session.
  7. Be Inclusive – Remember that the online environment may cause those students who might normally shy away from interaction in the classroom easily hide. If students are posting in a discussion, try and ensure that you interact with everyone at some point. And if a student has not made a post, or submitted an assignment, reach out with a warm message to ask if everything is okay and offer help and guidance. While online learning can be an engaging and invigorating experience for many, it can be an isolating and friendless place for some.

These are just a few pointers from my years as an online instructor; there are many more. Overall, you should aim to be a visible and approachable presence in your classroom; someone who offers advice, support, and guidance to your learners, but also sensitive to the many challenges that the online learner may be facing. So, remember to customize your teaching and your assessments to such a unique environment. I hope this advice helps make your teaching experience as rewarding for you as it is for me, and hopefully it will be for your learners, too.