Enriching teacher-student communication with online tools.
The limitations of classroom teaching are too constricting. Time and resources don’t stretch far enough, and the quality of your interaction with students is too dependent on the mood of the classroom at the moment you are together.
There are many potential tradeoffs and pitfalls to online teaching, but the key is to focus on the benefits. A successful online experience requires an openness to – and even an aggressive pursuit of – the ways in which technology-assisted learning work better for some teachers, some students, and some material than face-to-face experiences can, and building skills toward that end.
Learning how to control, nurture, and benefit from an online experience, as you would a discussion group, teaches in the process of doing. New skills and different sensibilities open doors to different types of communication and learning styles.
Currently available technology offers opportunities for students to take unprecedented control of what and how they learn, if its design is predicated on that approach to learning. This fundamental shift in the role of the teacher – from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side” – is particularly suited to online learning, where the student’s engagement with the material is the goal, rather than engagement with the teacher as the vessel where knowledge resides.
Online teachers can take positive steps to ensure that students have an active, experiential learning experience, while still retaining the capability to dynamically challenge students’ interpretation of material:
Orient students to the new venue
Like any of us trying to navigate new territory, landmarks help students trying to find their way around online courses. Establish an orientation website that is always available to students throughout their program, and emphasize the level of control they will have over their learning process. Illustrate how the tools work, and make extensive use of discussion boards and virtual classroom chat areas that enable them to touch base with you and their peers.
Include simple directions that tell students where components of courses are located, and how to perform core functions like uploading files, using interactive research tools, participating in a virtual classroom, and creating a new message board thread. Acquiring navigation skills that hold from course to course will raise their comfort level with online learning, and dispel the notion online learning is a passive experience.
Reach out to your students & mentor
Mentoring does not take less time each week than teaching in the traditional sense; in fact, it likely takes more. You should check in frequently with students, and provide both scheduled and unscheduled feedback on student work or questions. Feedback should be timely, authentic, and valuable. You should look for signs that a student may be having problems with the material, the medium, or personal distractions.
Help students overcome obstacles
Online courses do level the playing field by eliminating distinctions among students – such as disabilities and shyness – that can interfere with classroom performance. However, since students who engage in online learning can falter for other reasons, you must be vigilant. For instance, in synchronous courses with a real-time component, many students hang back in virtual classrooms because they type more slowly than others. They are intimidated by the thought of posting a thought long after the conversation has moved on. You can counter that intimidation by making clear at the start that typing speed is a known variable, and encouraging students not to worry about it. You should wait for them to post their ideas as they can, and then make sure to respond to the student’s post, whenever it occurs in the discussion. This requires patience on your part, but that patience is very important to model for other, quicker students.
When the course is asynchronous, your feedback and responses to every contribution are critically important to assuring students their contributions are valued.
Respond to calls for help
Some students will often make what appear to be random comments in posts to message boards that are thinly disguised calls for support. These comments should cue you to the possibility that the student may be having problems, and that you should respond or intervene. Take advantage of the fact that you are not in a real-time classroom trying to juggle content, manage a discussion, mount audio-visual aids, and get past environmental distractions. The benefit of having interactions captured in print is that you can learn to read for student signals and respond appropriately.
Other students may be competely absent from online discussions, and that may also signify a need for help. So, in addition to looking for cues in online discussions, pay attention to those who are chronically absent from discussions.
Model civility for your students
Remember to take your in-person teaching style online with you, and develop writing skills that enable you to transmit yourself authentically in print. Online communication is often justly criticized because its efficiency can be misinterpreted by the recipient. What is concise in any other context can become curt or even brutal online.
Unlike face-to-face interactions, where a comment lasts only a few seconds, small gestures bring big returns online because they become part of a permanent record. Take advantage of the ability to keep positive reinforcement alive by complimenting students when they deserve it. Request something of students, instead of demanding it. Write courteously, and never put in writing something you wouldn’t think of saying to a student in person. When appropriate, show humor, compassion, or puzzlement. Before hitting the “send” button, read over your post and imagine how you would feel if it were said to you.
Empower your students to successfully engage in the online learning experience by sharing your guidelines for online communication. Effective two-way communication – among as many people as are participating – is at the core of successful teaching and learning.