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Article: Online Courses & Classes

Online should be (or could be) as effective as traditional classroom learning. In almost every online class, resources and materials are provided for the students, then assessments are given to determine if progress has been made with meeting the required learning objectives. Students aren’t required to sit through a classroom or lecture and instead they can study at their own pace. But elements are missing in a virtual classroom, such as face to face interactions that provide visual and verbal cues, and that makes the distance factor a significant challenge.

So what can an online college do to ensure that learning occurs in a virtual environment? Most online courses contain a standard structure, even with varying student handbooks, assignments & supplementary materials. However, creating a good online course  does not automatically guarantee that students are going to be engaged and learn lots. Learning is influenced by the conditions an instructor creates and interactions they have with their students. Most experienced online instructors know that learning is a process that must be nurtured and teaching is not just a function to complete.

Students and a Virtual Classroom

Consider the students’ experience when they first enter a virtual classroom. They need to navigate through the classroom, find the required materials, and become highly motivated to keep up with the discussions and assignments. Most learning management systems have evolved over time to make the user experience easier but the ability of a student to learn in this environment requires more than how they are able use the technological tools. Students need to be able to feel connected to the class, believe the course will meet their specific academic and/or career needs, obtain assistance when needed, and develop meaningful relationships with their instructors. What can hinder this process and reduce the potential for learning is the reliance on written words as the primary form of communication. The classroom can then become almost mechanical in nature for students and discourage them from being fully engaged and working towards peak performance.

Instructors and a Virtual Classroom

Instructors have many responsibilities that begins with knowing the subject matter they are required to teach and then they must manage the classroom efficiently and effectively. This includes completing the required facilitation duties, participating in discussions, providing feedback, and managing relationships. But one of the most important responsibilities is creating an environment that is conducive to learning. There are factors that can work against the instructor, from a poorly designed course to a lack of engaging resources, which cannot be easily corrected. Even if the classroom has been perfectly constructed an instructor must still be actively present and proactively working to create a positive experience for students. It is easy for students to disengage from an online class and if the instructor is not closely monitoring conditions, and doesn’t notice a student who is withdrawing, it may be too late to re-engage them back into the class. This speaks to the nature of learning, which can be easy for some students and challenging for others – especially if they lack fundamental academic skills.

Strategies for Online Courses & Classes

Develop Good Supplementary Materials:

Most online classes have some form of supplementary materials to the main student handbook & assignments. These are a good way to keep learning fresh and exciting.

Be a Facilitator, Educator, and Teacher:

The work of an online instructor has been referred to by many names, including facilitator, educator, and teacher. When an instructor is able to facilitate, educate, and teach, their effectiveness in the classroom becomes apparent in all aspects of their work.

Provide Assignment Feedback:

Instructors know that students need more than a letter grade to prompt their continued development and this aligns with the premise of self-directed adult learners who want to be involved in the learning process. Students want to know why they earned the grade received. If they use grades as their primary source of motivation it becomes important to teach them to focus on more than their grades and instead understand the meaning of those grades and what can be learned from it. To do this the feedback needs to address the content of what was written, along with the mechanics, and be done in a manner that encourages their progress. What some instructors rely upon, typically when there is little time available, is canned comments or quickly written commentary. Feedback is most effective when it causes students to become further interested in the topics and more importantly, when they reflect upon their work and academic progress. When students are engaged in the feedback process they are more likely to be responsive to what their instructor provides and learn from it.

Be Actively Present and Engaged:

There is a misconception that an instructor cannot help students if they cannot see them. But an instructor can bridge the distance gap and create conditions that are conducive to learning. What I’ve learned through my online teaching experience, and background working with faculty, is that students can easily disengage from the class and if it isn’t noticed right away it may be too late to re-engage them. There are many reasons why students disengage and it may not be easy to know exactly why when working in a virtual classroom For example, when students become frustrated or lose motivation with an online course they may begin to slowly withdraw and if an instructor is actively present they will notice the absence of those students. What I’ve also observed is that student performance is often directly influenced by the level of engagement of the instructor. An instructor’s virtual presence is also a social presence that builds a sense of community among students that helps to keep them engaged and interested in the class.

Use Effective Communication :

The primary form of communication in an online classroom consists of written posts and messages. Interactions and relationships in a virtual class are also based upon written words. A challenge that this presents is that messages and posts are then subject to interpretation, along with a perceived tone and intent of the message posted. Since messages are sent asynchronously it means that the instructor is not present to ensure the message was interpreted correctly. While written words are not the most effective method of communication it is still possible for students to develop a perception about the instructor’s disposition towards helping them.

What this means is that anything an instructor decides to post needs to be done from a position of care and concern, rather than from feelings of frustration or an emotional response or reaction. It can be helpful to create posts first, perhaps in a Word document, and that will help to manage the mechanics and tone of what is written. If a negative emotional reaction is experienced due to something a student has posted it would be better to delay any form of response until it can be approached from a logical and rational perspective. This helps to develop productive working relationships and model effective communication for students to follow.

Teach the Potential for Online Learning

When instructors are actively present and engaged in their online courses it helps to bridge the distance gap with their students and it can also teach them the powerful potential of distance learning, along with the value of education. An instructor’s involvement, which is their active online presence, influences how students respond to the virtual classroom environment, how well they perform, engage in the class, and stay motivated. Online teaching is not just a function and a matter of checking duties off of a list. The work that an instructor does, as an educator, teacher, and facilitator, also determines how effective the learning process occurs and development of conditions that are conducive to learning need to be nurtured from week to week, until the class concludes. Once a new class starts, the need for developing the same type of environment begins again. Just as learning is never a one-time event, so too is the art and skill of online teaching. Students will learn best when they are in an environment that encourages them to do so and this is in direct control of their online college.

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