To be Online or Not to be Online? That is the Question!

I’m sure many of us have had the experience of teaching online or blended classes (with both online and in-person components).  More and more students are taking online courses and students are requesting the opportunity to take even more courses online.

So, should everyone take an online course?  Should everyone teach an online course?  Despite the fact that we want to give our students multiple and flexible course delivery options to increase persistence and retention, putting students and instructors who lack the skill sets needed to be successful in online learning environments can have the opposite effect — sometimes devastatingly so.

There are lots of articles out there about skills and characteristics of successful online students.  Generally, they boil down to students who are

  • active, rather than passive learners
  • self-motivated to learn and do learning activities, rather than needing to be prodded, reminded or cajoled
  • really good with time-management and self-disciplined, rather than needing the structure of a classroom and the requirement to get to class on time
  • strong and uninhibited communicators, rather than those who silently sit in confusion rather than ask questions. This is not the same as being extroverted rather than introverted!  Sometimes introverts actually do better in online environments than in classrooms because the learning environment is quieter and feels “safer” — sometimes it’s easier to ask the instructor written questions one-on-one than raise questions in a classroom setting
  • critical thinkers and problem solvers, rather than those who identify obstacles without brainstorming resolutions
  • familiar with technology, and unafraid to learn new ways to use it, rather than a computer novice who panics if the thing s/he is looking for isn’t on the top half of the web page that first comes up.

But what about instructors?  Are there skill sets we should have before we dive into online teaching?  Absolutely!  Again, there are several articles out there about the skills and characteristics of successful online instructors.  Generally, they boil down to instructors who are

  • facilitators who create learning activities and environments that encourage students to learn from each other and collaborate (for learning, not necessarily assessment, though that also has its place), rather than the “sage on the stage” who merely imparts information in non-interactive content.  Sorry, but posting your lecture notes online doesn’t count.  Even videotaping yourself delivering a traditional one-sided lecture doesn’t cut it.
  • motivated to create learning activities that are engaging and require students to be active online (and no, this doesn’t include clicking to advance PowerPoint slides), rather than, well, see the bullet point above.  Use activities that guide students toward learning and finding answers themselves.  Lead them down the garden path, show them the open gate, but don’t push them through; let them walk through and discover the garden themselves.
  • conscious of the time they are asking students to put into learning the materials online, rather than piling on additional reading assignments.  Categorize learning activities into required/crucial for success, recommended/capitalizing on success and supplemental/building on success.  It’s similar to must have, nice to have, and extra niceties.  Help students prioritize.  Extrapolate snippets from articles/case studies that are crucial to learning success, and provide the rest for those students who are hungry for more.
  • continuous and supportive communicators, rather than providing feedback on assignments once a week — and then only pointing out what’s “wrong.”  You’ve heard it over and over — frequent and early feedback is important.  Then keep it continuous, meaningful and be sure to point out what’s “right” as well.
  • flexible and willing to provide support to students outside of the “traditional” M-F 9-5 work week — not that many of us at NWTC really have one of those anyhow 🙂
  • develop forums and activities that allow students to meaningfully connect to, interact with and support each other. Group assignments that encourage online students to use collaborative tools to come up with “group” answers to hypothetical questions have worked really well for me. There was also a great post on 2/18/15 “Discussion Board Live” by Valarie Schwartz that hits this nail on the head with respect to Discussion Boards.
  • familiar with technology, and excited to learn new ways to use it, rather than someone who returns to the good old standbys of posting lecture notes, magazine articles, PowerPoints, etc.  There is so much cool and fun stuff out there with which you can be creative — and a lot of it is free!  Here is my plug for our Talent Development team — they have some great resources out there for you, ranging from lists of websites and interactive online activities to check out, to PD sessions that teach you how to use some of this stuff, to being willing to schedule one-on-one time with you (or team time with your team) to teach you or help get you unstuck after you start using it.

As important as it is for students to honestly assess whether their current skill set, work ethic and personal situation are likely to enhance or hamper their ability to succeed in an online learning environment, it is equally important for us as instructors to ask the same questions of ourselves.  Don’t teach an online class rather than an in-person class because you think it’s easier (it’s not), it’s less work (it’s actually more), it places less demands on your time and skills (wrong!), it’s more convenient because you set your own hours (LOL), or it basically teaches itself (ROTFL).  Instead, teach an online class because you possess a good number of the skills and characteristics recommended for successful online students and instructors — you accept and look forward to the challenges and rewards of online teaching.

OK, this post has nothing to do with Hamlet, but it’s a catchy title, don’t you think?

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “To be Online or Not to be Online? That is the Question!

  1. Yes, the criteria you have gleaned from various and sundry resources along with your own comments have passed the litmus test as to promoting a more successful on-line course. In addition, I would like to add another criterion, that is, humanizing the on-line course as a former student has written:

    “Even though as it is an online class, I think your communication and comments throughout the semester have proved to be very beneficial to my overall growth as a student and a person. It has improved my overall attitude towards life, and my critical thinking skills; and I personally thank you for this. Although, I do understand the circumstance of it being an online course with no face to face interaction, it seemed like an in-person course. I appreciate and thank you your time, and effort throughout the semester.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s