Why do you aspire to teach, or continue to teach, online classes? This is a question I have been asking myself for over a decade now, and I use it as a means of self-reflection, to determine if I am growing and adapting as the needs of learners are changing. What I’ve found is the technology has certainly changed, and the tools within the classroom have also changed, but there are some basic learner needs that have remained unchanged. For example, learners need to know their online instructor is present and engaged in the class, and easily accessible. This should be a simple requirement to meet, and yet I know of many instructors who check into their classes only when needed, making their job a series of rote functions. Do you believe learners notice this disposition? You can be certain they do, and wish for further engagement by the instructor. Yet if this is an ongoing pattern, from one instructor to the next, learners may come to believe this is what they should expect from an online school.
Who is responsible for creating a nurturing and welcoming class? The answer of course is the instructor. Even when a course is pre-built and has all elements designed and in place, it is the instructor’s active engagement that brings the class to life by modeling best practices and implementing learner-centered strategies. The strategies I’ve developed are a result of time and practice, noting what has been effective, and adapting to what learner’s need in order to continue their academic development. This involves more than just being “seen” in the class by learners, it also includes all interactions with them, which are teaching moments in and of themselves. Whether it is an email or a discussion post, everything an instructor responds to or develops has meaning, and a potential to engage the learner further in the class. Perhaps the following strategies will help you to continue to develop your instructional practice, while also creating a sense of purpose for the duties you perform in the classroom.
Words Hold Power
Be careful what you write, post, or send. This is the essence of what an online instructor must consider when interacting with their learners. It is not a matter of living in fear, rather it involves remembering to be composed, poised, and empathetic towards anyone who is submitting a written assignment, posting a message within the discussion board, or sending an email. Those words are the representation of a real person, someone with hopes, dreams, and fears. The words used may or may not have been the best choice and yet it is you who must see beyond those words and try to decipher the meaning or intent or questions being posed. Then an answer or follow-up needs to be done with a sense of care for the well-being of the person it is addressed to, even if you don’t understand, feel a negative emotional reaction, or want further clarification. You must be in a neutral position when using your communication as your words have tremendous power and once written, posted, or sent, those words cannot be taken back. Think carefully, choose wisely, make a draft and walk away for a time, and never press send when you are in an emotional state of mind. If you can remain in an emotionally calm state, your interactions will become much more effective and less stressful.
The Absence of Direct Contact
When an instructor is in a traditional classroom, there is a physical presence established, regardless of the disposition felt at any given time. Whether there are feelings of excitement about what can be taught, or a sense of just wanting to make it through the required tasks, the presence is there and learners experience it through their senses. With an online class, the experience occurs through the learning management system or LMS, and the technology used by many online schools has advanced significantly with regards to interactivity over the past few years. But the overall feel of the online class is that of a static experience, rather than a dynamic person who is moving around and available to engage. This poses a new challenge, creating a sense of presence when there is no direct contact available. This why online teaching is not just about managing the mechanics of the classroom and completing the required tasks, it should be focused on what can be done to humanize the learning experience.
Do You Have the Time?
The primary challenge any faculty member will tell you, especially those who are working within an adjunct status, is the amount of time it takes to remain learner-focused. I understand as I have been working in both part-time and full-term roles throughout my career, and I know that no matter what your status may be, managing the class and keeping up with all the requirements is a significant investment of time each week. A typical schedule may include a weekly discussion and the most time-consuming task of all involves providing feedback. To engage in substantive participation and develop substantive feedback can easily consume the majority of an instructor’s weekly schedule. This is why many will rely upon canned comments, little to no comments, a pre-made rubric, and a few general comments within the discussion board. That’s when I go back to the question asked at the beginning of this post. What is your reason for continuing to teach? If you want to teach, then you have to find the time because you enjoy watching adults learn. From my experience as an educator, they won’t learn unless you have taken the time necessary to create meaningful and engaging feedback and posts.
Discover Essential Learner-Centered Strategies For Online Instructors
What I’ve developed are strategies I’ve implemented, along with strategies I’ve taught while I’ve worked within online faculty development. The purpose is not necessarily meant to create additional work, but to help you find methods of transforming the instructional practice you have in place now. Perhaps you have implemented some of these strategies already, or perhaps you will be inspired to try something new. The entire focus is on the learner and how we, as educators, can create an environment they want to participate in and are encouraged to learn in.
Essential Strategy #1: Encourage Learners to Become Involved.
This can be challenging within a virtual environment, especially when you cannot see the class in front of you and gauge their reactions. If your class has a mandatory discussion question, try to post a reply to each learner during that week, at least one time, to acknowledge their position or viewpoint. You can use Socratic questioning to help continue the conversation, which is especially useful for those who may be slower to respond. For anyone who has missed a discussion due date, conduct some form of outreach to engage them in the discussion.
Essential Strategy #2: Always Offer Reassurance and Reinforcement.
I know of many learners who simply dread receiving feedback. Why? They know it will either consist of a few short sentences, canned comments, or nothing that will actually help them learn. Worse yet, many know the feedback has a negative tone, as it will be a list of what was not completed correctly. While I understand the need to address corrective elements, what will help someone learn is a message that offers reassurance and positive reinforcement. I believe we all know how different it feels to be told something negative, instead of being offered reassurance that there are resources available to help make needed changes. This aspect of feedback can be challenging when a learner does not seem to want to change, but therein is the reason why educators themselves learn to grow, when faced with situations which allow them to develop new methods of reaching out to learners.
Essential Strategy #3: Be Highly Present and Engaged.
An occasional check-in for messages and class participation may meet the faculty requirements for your school; however, is this enough to create a visible presence? To become highly present and engaged are always my goals as an online educator, and I challenge myself to develop innovative methods for accomplishing this goal. One such method, which I am very pleased to see encouraged by the online school I am associated with now, is the use of videos. I am at the forefront with my colleagues in the development and use of videos, whether it is sending out reminders or using videos as an instructional tool.
I have also been using videos for feedback and find this frees me up from the restrictions of written words alone, allowing me to convey warmth and empathy which might not otherwise be obviously read in static posted messages or emails. As an important note, I don’t use videos to replace my presence, I use them to supplement my presence. I am in the classroom to be engaged in class discussions, in a substantive manner, respond to messages thoughtfully, and take time to craft feedback as a teachable experience for learners. I find this sets an example for the class to follow, as they “see” me actively working in the classroom and as a result, they are encouraged to do so as well.
Essential Strategy #4: Share Your Knowledge and Insight
I know of many educators who feel they have no ability left to teach when classes are pre-built, meaning the curriculum has already been established and materials put into the class weeks. But that is far from the truth. As someone who has authored more courses than I can count, the purpose of curriculum development is to establish uniformity and ensure learning objectives are met. It is the role of the instructor to teach and bring those materials to life. I absolutely feel alive, so to speak, when I am engaged in the online discussions and read the perspectives of learners who are connecting to the course concepts and sharing what they have learned.
Even those who are struggling with concepts provide me with an opportunity to teach, as I can help share knowledge and insight with them, just as I can with those who are able to grasp the subject matter quicker. I can provide examples from my professional practice, ask follow-up questions to encourage further reflection, and offer my own insight. There are many times I have learned from their experiences, as much as they have learned from me. This is the joy of teaching adults who have past experience to share. All of these experience, insights, and perspectives add the needed context for learning to occur, every week of the course.
Essential Strategy #5: Pay Attention to What Learners Need
I realize at the start of every course I may only have a limited amount of time to work with those in my class, and yet I will try to get to know them as best as I can, especially from an academic developmental perspective. From week to week, it is possible to watch their progress and determine what strengths exist, or areas of development that need attention. I have a list of resources available to recommend, based upon the individual needs of learners, and I try to personalize feedback provided. I believe when they know I am paying attention to their individual needs, they in turn will be more likely to review the feedback and consider what I’ve written. It is a mindset perspective, one of viewing the online class not as a set of names, but as a collection of individual people or adults who want to be engaged in the learning process, and it is up to me to help lead the way.
It’s Not About You, No Really
Educators tend to worry about the amount of time they have available for their tasks in a given week, and a large class load can create a sense of apprehension or stress. It is a natural and understandable feeling, to look ahead and wonder how everything required will be completed. But what I’ve learned over time is that this is the wrong focus, if I am thinking only about myself and how I will cope. This is not to say I shouldn’t take care of myself or plan downtime. But what this forgets are the adult learners who are going to rely upon me this week to be present in the classroom in a meaningful manner. If I am to be truly learner-centric, then I must always be prepared for the class first, and make certain I do have enough time in the week to complete my tasks. When I was working as an adjunct, I would not work for too many schools at once, knowing I needed to dedicate enough time to each class I was teaching. When I’m working full-time as an educator, I know my learners may still need me outside of typical working hours and I never mind answering a call for someone who is frustrated, upset, concerned, or just needs assistance.
While I understand there are important issues surrounding adjunct faculty and pay, just as there are for full-time faculty, I believe the purpose of entering this profession is not just to earn a paycheck. It has never been this way for me, and never will. I find extreme fulfillment in being able to help others gain new knowledge, acquire skills, and develop a new belief in their own ability to succeed. I know how transformative this process was for me as an online learner myself, and now I am trying to not only replicate the process for those whom I teach, but to make it even better for them and continually raise the bar for myself. The faculty I remember most clearly were the ones whom not only engaged in the class, they took an interest in my academic development. That is who I aspire to be, no matter how many years go by, and I remain humbled by knowing the success of my learners is a result of my enjoyment in teaching and helping others succeed.
This is what you will find at the very heart of a classroom where learner-centered strategies are being utilized, an educator who cares about their learners and is willing to take the time necessary to nurture their progress. Online teaching then becomes transformed, from a focus on job duties, functions, and time involved, to the needs of individual adult learners. Remember, your class is a collective of individuals who each have hopes, dreams, and ambitions. See them for who they are and the potential they hold, one adult at a time, and you will be on your way to the development of a learner-focused classroom.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and teacher.
Dr. Johnson’s career has involved helping others learn, including people and organizations. His roles have included Manager of Training and Development, Human Performance Improvement Consultant, Online Instructor, Career Coach, Curriculum Developer, Manager of Faculty Development, and Chief Academic Officer.
Since 2005, Dr. J has specialized in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, career development, and human performance improvement. He has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities.