Online learning has become more than a convenient way for the modern student to gain an education. Global circumstances have changed the landscape for all educators and instructors must invest in themselves to continue to be the best teacher they can be. We’ve learned through experience that online teaching can take lots of preparation time—perhaps far more than you would think.
Hard work and specific planning at the outset will pays off in later semesters. Here are eight simple but important tips for preparing, maintaining, and teaching online.
1. Incorporate Synchronous Time
If you are utilizing your LMS for a lot of asynchronous work, the occasional times you require the class to be in attendance together need to be worthwhile. Spending synchronous time on a lecture is wasteful and will frustrate students. Instead, use the time together to foster interaction and engage as a group. This could be a good time to debrief a particularly exciting simulation or make connections between a few different assignments to show a larger learning arc. Whatever you decide, make sure synchronous time is worth it to both you and your class, and communicate that to them ahead of time.
2. Prepare and maintain your online course
Get to know your online learning management system (LMS) before students arrive. Just as it’s important to be familiar with your physical surroundings while teaching in a classroom, you need to become comfortable with the LMS you use for your online class prior to the start of the course. Most systems have mechanisms set up to post your syllabus and assignments, interact with students one on one, and communicate with the entire class through a messaging or chat feature. Often you can front load your work and schedule posts to become available within the LMS on certain days or at certain times. Knowing how to navigate the LMS your course resides in before it begins will make things much smoother throughout the semester as you can then focus on the students and their learning rather than technical glitches.
3. Remember that electronic tools leave electronic traces and use this to your advantage
Because your course will be online, you will have an impressive log of information: when you post materials, how frequently you give assignments, which information students respond to best, which students are interacting most, how long it takes for discussions to start, how long discussions last, and so much more. Paying attention to these details and noticing patterns can help you course correct when needed throughout the semester.
4. Make your LMS look professional and inviting
This might seem like a small detail compared to preparing a lecture or debriefing a case, but an electronic space can make as big an impact on a student as a physical space. As much as your LMS is customizable, spend a little time choosing how class materials are organized, a font that is professional and easy to read (pro tip: sans serif fonts are easier on the eye if you’re reading on a screen), and clear navigational directions to get to the most important information. Your students shouldn’t feel frustrated while simply trying to access the syllabus or communicate with each other about assignments.
5. Take advantage of asynchronous time
One of the great benefits of online teaching is the ability to have students engage even when class isn’t “in session.” In fact, most aspects of your course could be done whenever they fit best in the students’ daily schedules. Watching recorded lectures, reading a case, playing certain simulations, and even responding to some discussion questions do not have to happen for the group all at once. Leaning heavily on asynchronous learning does mean you will want hard and clear deadlines for certain things (such as discussion board participation), but ultimately it is a great tool for you and your students.
6. Ask good questions of your students
In a physical classroom it is easy to see how engaged students are and how they react to discussion questions. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to gauge their reactions in an online classroom. Because of this, it is important that you ask questions—whether in a synchronous discussion or on a class discussion board—that are engaging and can spark complex conversation. Vary the types of questions you ask, and try to make them as immersive as you can. Intentionally provocative questions can also be useful, as they tend to instigate lively discussion.
7. Observe student engagement and adjust for better participation
In an online setting, it can be easy for timid or passive students to hide in the back while others take up all the discussion time. There are many ways to help students speak up in an online class aside from cold calling during synchronous discussions. Vary the time of day you post topics to the discussion boards so that there are more opportunities for different students to get the conversations rolling. Rotate through your class list who can post first when a discussion begins.
8. Prepare your next course while teaching this one
Once you’ve set up a course in an online space, it will be incredibly easy to repeat it in subsequent semesters. As you find things that need to be altered throughout your class, make note of them so that you can actively change those things in the LMS ahead of teaching the course again. Assuming you keep on top of changes you’d like to make, each ensuing run of the course will take very little upfront work for you.
Reach out to some of the students individually ahead of time and ask them to engage about a particular point. Just like in a traditional classroom, when all of the students are participating and engaged the discussion and learning experience becomes richer for everyone.
Online teaching offers a way to reach many students who otherwise could not participate. The field is open for innovation, and you may well be able to discover ways of effective teaching online that other instructors have not thought of before. Best of all: Though it might be a lot of work up front, almost everything you do is reusable—also across courses—resulting over time in a very good and personal infrastructure for online teaching.