(some) Top Ten Tips for Online Instructors

I’ve been working as a ‘faculty specialist’ for a number of months now. That is, not only do I train new faculty on our systems, expectations, and how to facilitate online courses, I also serve as our online faculty’s first point of contact for any help they need in their courses. This can range from the merely technical to dealing with student or faculty conduct issues.

In these last few months, I think I’ve probably dealt with over 500 unique issues, and have trained upwards of 100 new faculty. Phew! It’s been busy.

I’ve ‘visited’ several different classrooms during that time, and I think that the best learning experiences have been conducted by those faculty who hit a lot of the following points:

10 – they know the platform. There’s a steep learning curve for any new student in an online classroom. They’re nervous. What happens if they put their assignment in the wrong place? A good instructor keeps an eye on the questions forum, responds to email, and is patient with her students: she knows the LMS platform, and they understand where the issues will be for the new student.

9 – they are patient. The same questions will be asked again and again, since many students will not read the responses given to other students in the public fora!

8 – they can empathize. Your students are working from home, nights, after a long day at their job. They need to know that the instructor understands where they’re coming from.

7 – they are consistent. From elementary school to grad school, nothing causes more friction in a class than an inconsistent application of the rules.

6 – the rules are clear. Boundaries have to be set. What are the standards for behavior? What constitutes ‘participation’ online? When are due dates? What will happen if those due dates are missed?

5 – tone. Tone online is the easiest thing to misjudge. Your dry rapier wit will not come across to someone used to treating emails in the same fashion as regular mail. Use the emoticon. Even an appropriate LOL (but never ROFL, that’s just silly) can help.

4 – humor. Keep it light. The students are dealing with the material, their home lives, their mortgages, whatever. The last thing they need is to log on for two hours each day and have some remote person bludgeon them with ALL CAPS underlines and what have you.

3 – sandwich the things that didn’t go so well on an assignment between the things that were well done: soften the blow. You want to keep your students motivated. Don’t focus on the negative. Deal with it, but take pains to find the good as well.

2 – respond. The internet has conditioned everyone to expect instantaneous responses. Does this mean that you have to sleep with your computer? Not at all. But set the ground rules for how quickly a student can expect a response, and then adhere to it. If the student knows that you’re in the field and can only be online every third day, they will respect that, and not panic: but only if you tell them first.

1 – be a real person. You will get abuse, intolerant emails, and downright rudeness in emails. When a screen mediates the contact between students and instructors, it is quite easy for a student (and, unfortunately, an instructor) to type out that barbed comment and hit send without a second thought. Take pains to pull that screen down. Make yourself ‘real’ to your students. You do this by always addressing them by name. Perhaps you set up a video chat via skype. Perhaps a conference call. Read their personal bios. Ask about their kids. Establish, and maintain, a real relationship. This is the single greatest thing you can do to ensure the success of your distance and online students.

And once you’ve done all that, you can start to think about how to address learning styles, presenting material in ways that make sense for instance to visual learners (I think wordle might have a role here). But that’s a post for another day.

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