During the coronavirus pandemic, many higher education professors were forced to pivot their instruction online to allow teaching and learning to continue. If you were an instructor who taught hundreds (or even dozens) at an institution with tens of thousands of students, you recognized that this presented new challenges—especially if you were being asked to teach an online course for the first time. For many educators, online teaching challenges the way they normally teach their courses.
Table of Contents
- What are online teaching and blended teaching?
- Best practices for online teaching
- The online teaching challenge: Passive students
- The online teaching challenge: Staying connected with students
- The online teaching challenge: Encouraging collaboration
- The online teaching challenge: Selecting the right tools
- The online teaching challenge: Designing effective assessments
As a full-time writing and liberal arts instructor, I have taught in many different kinds of classrooms, from traditional bi-weekly and weekly in-class sessions to condensed courses that met for six hours at a time. Yet in online teaching, lectures are completely different than in face-to-face learning environments. Unfortunately, all too often, online courses are still imagined (and even designed) as in-class courses without the in-class part, with an archive of PowerPoint presentations and a list of recommended reading or other teaching resources as the core part of the teaching experience.
While emergency remote instruction is now behind us, blended and online learning will remain prevalent modalities. Here are five common challenges of teaching online and some useful instructional strategies to help you navigate them.
What are online teaching and blended teaching?
Online teaching is defined as the facilitation of an academic course that has been purpose-built for online delivery. Instructional experiences are designed and delivered fully online, often with the aid of instructional designers and information technology support. The learning experiences and curriculum objectives in an online course are planned and developed before the start of a semester. One of the key benefits of online teaching is that instructors have the flexibility to include a variety of instructional strategies and educational technologies. This allows students to meaningfully engage with course content, as well as their peers and instructors on their own schedule. The turn towards online learning reinforces the need for instructors to shift away from the “sage on a stage” style of lecturing towards a more engaging, collaborative approach where instructors and students are both active participants in the learning process.
Blended teaching and learning refer to the practice of using both in-person and online learning experiences when teaching students. In a blended-learning course, students might attend lectures led by an instructor in a traditional classroom environment, while also completing online learning activities on their own time. This way, time in the classroom can be supplemented or replaced by online learning experiences, and students learn about the same course concepts independently online as they do in class, meaning that the online and in-person learning experiences would parallel and complement one another.
Best practices for online teaching
- Ask for informal feedback on your online teaching: Informal discussions or surveys are a simple way to ask students to provide feedback on your online course. It is also a chance to solicit suggestions and ideas on what might help learners have a better online course experience. This feedback should be done relatively early in the semester, so instructors are able to tweak their course accordingly. A quick discussion thread, poll or email asking a few of these questions works well:
- What’s working so far?
- What would you like help with?
- How could your online learning experience be improved?
- Think like a student: One of the challenges of learning online means that the classroom environment loses the built-in sense of community that comes more naturally to a traditional classroom environment. This means that opportunities for building connections must be built in to your class.
Getting a clearer understanding on how your students will engage in your course helps prepare instructors to mitigate these challenges. Are there simple instructions regarding your assignment extension policy? Have you provided students with a clear breakdown on how their assignments will be graded? Are curriculum objectives and learning goals directly connected to online teaching and learning activities? Ideally, students should understand exactly what you are teaching online and what is expected of them as a result. Being intentional about course design is essential to ensuring students interact with course content the way that instructors intend. Here are a few ways to create a sense of community in the classroom:
- Make use of discussion forums and encourage students to share anecdotes about their interests inside and outside of the classroom with their peers
- Play music at the start of each lecture and encourage students to make song suggestions
- Use a variety of large-group, small-group and individual learning experiences: Online teaching works best when a variety of learning experiences and activities are offered. Online courses are more enjoyable and effective when learners are given the opportunity to work through course concepts and assignments with their fellow students. However, some students learn and work most effectively on their own. Incorporating options and opportunities for students to work together and individually is beneficial for accommodating different types of learners. Small groups are particularly effective in online teaching when learners are working on complex case studies or scenarios for the first time. It is also important to have activities that involve the whole class such as discussion boards or events with invited experts for creating a sense of community in an online course.
The online teaching challenge: Passive students
Unless thoughtfully crafted with intentional instructional design choices, one of the central online teaching issues that instructors face is that it can make students into passive learners. These unengaged students may acquire the requisite lecture content and pass their assessments, but they aren’t often able to apply their learnings outside the virtual classroom or make connections with previously learned material. That’s because students need numerous interactions with new material in order to fully digest and absorb it. For learning to be truly effective, students must be engaged in the quality, breadth and depth of their learning.
Especially in remote classrooms, educators must recognize that students will only engage with course materials if they see them as valuable. In online learning environments, it’s important to help students engage with content in a way that makes sense for them. Providing students with ample flexible opportunities to have concepts reinforced will ensure that course material sticks, even after they’ve completed their final assessment.
With digital courseware, for example, online teachers can adopt or create a customizable interactive textbook as an online teaching solution, to extend active learning outside of class meetings. In-line interactive questions make it easy to track completion and comprehension of course content. These questions can be used to introduce new concepts, reinforce students’ understanding of topics and assess learning. Instructors can also easily export grades from these assessments, as well as participation data to their learning management system (LMS).
The online teaching challenge: Staying connected with students
One of the challenges of online classes is that much of the learning is completed asynchronously and students often feel disconnected from their instructor, as well as their peers. It can be difficult for instructors to teach online when they struggle to gauge how students are comprehending course content, and whether they are participating in learning experiences.
Feedback loops are a great online teaching solution that helps build strong connections with learners in an online or distance learning environment, even when learning isn’t synchronous. When students complete a task, they get feedback and make adjustments accordingly. Feedback is meant to be non-evaluative and focused on a specific course learning objective.
To give effective commentary, instructors must explain why a student is receiving the feedback, and suggest how they can improve in the future. This process also encourages students to reflect on that feedback, thus creating an iterative loop focused on individual progress and improvement over a semester. A key online teaching solution is using digital assessments or active learning platforms like Top Hat. With these tools, you can provide specific, immediate feedback to students and effectively evaluate their performance.
Classroom response systems can also help faculty members understand how students are performing. When questions are posed to the class, for example, students can respond anonymously through their devices—and the responses are displayed on the screen in real-time. Some online learning platforms also offer weekly course reports to track student comprehension, outlining where they performed well and where they need more work. One of the benefits of online teaching is that, through the use of educational technology, it can be easier to identify struggling students and reach out with additional resources and support, keeping accessibility in mind.
The online teaching challenge: Encouraging collaboration
Interaction among students is one of the most important elements of successful online education. A key challenge of teaching is doing it well. Collaborative engagement motivates learning and promotes a deeper and more critically aware approach to the subject matter. Unfortunately, one of the challenges of online education is that collaboration is difficult to achieve when students are not physically present together.
Many discussion assignments do not support organic conversation. Posts are asynchronous, formal responses to prompts, so the required “class discussion” that takes into account other students’ ideas is understandably forced. Such forums are more akin to prepared response papers than group exercises.
To encourage collaborative problem-solving, online instructors should consider giving students a more specific task than simply “commenting” on each other’s ideas. Ask directly for constructive feedback about their classmates’ submissions. For example: “Focus on one claim in a peer’s response that you think deserves to be developed in more depth. Suggest how that claim could be further developed and supported with evidence.”
Problem-based learning is one of several collaborative online teaching strategies and online teaching solutions that allows students to apply course material to real-world case studies in small groups in distance education environments. Whether used in group learning or individually, this method helps students build upon their creativity and critical thinking skills. Students are invited to analyze, synthesize and then critique the information presented. By drawing on one another’s expertise and seeking out online resources and tools, students who use problem-based learning can reach their course’s learning objectives in collaborative, meaningful ways.
The online teaching challenge: Selecting the right tools
One of the key challenges of online teaching is deciding on which tech tools and platforms to use in your classroom. Online teaching and learning tools allow instructors to engage and interact with students before, during and after class. Many of the technologies below can be used to accommodate your class’s unique structure—including lectures, labs, group meetings or class tutorials.
- Learning management systems (LMS) such as Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard allow you to manage courses, assign homework and tests, and track student grades.
- Digital courseware such as ebook products by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Top Hat can be used to create and distribute teaching resources (such as textbooks or question packs) to students as a way to create engaging homework experiences.
- Classroom response systems including iClicker and Poll Everywhere help instructors quickly gauge student progress through polls or other online discussion strategies in class.
- Virtual classroom tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are used to host synchronous online lectures and let participants engage in breakout rooms or ‘share their screen’ with one another.
The online teaching challenge: Designing effective assessments
Online assessments can be challenging for instructors to adjust to, but they provide a variety of opportunities to gauge student comprehension and progress towards learning objectives, which can be a challenge in online courses. There are a number of options instructors can implement in their online courses.
- Open-book exams: Open-book exams offer flexibility for instructors and students, making them conducive for online and blended learning environments. A well-constructed assessment provides interesting opportunities to test higher-order thinking skills, like critical analysis and reflection, rather than simple rote memorization. The Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley explains that open-book exams are particularly effective at making use of questions that prioritize synthesis, analysis and evaluation to assess student comprehension. These questions are further enhanced by digital reference materials like videos, audio clips and images, which allow for more freedom and creativity in constructing an open-book exam.
- Online proctored tests: In response to the need to deliver traditional summative assessments in remote learning environments, Top Hat offers secure proctored tests and exams students can take on their own computers, at a pre-set time and from any location. This is an important option for instructors overseeing courses that require proctored exams for accreditation, such as nursing and other professional programs.
Professors can easily run an exam with a specific start and end time, while secure lockout capabilities keep students from exiting the test screen throughout the duration. If a student navigates away from the test webpage by opening a new tab or browser window, they will be unable to re-enter the test unless they are unlocked by the instructor.
- Online alternative assessments: One of the benefits of online assessments is that they provide opportunities to extend learning outside of the classroom, by tailoring toward real-world skills and settings, such as research skills. Collaborative assessments, meanwhile, in which students work with one another on a project or assignment, could be challenging to coordinate and execute in remote settings. Nevertheless, devising assessments that compel students to collaborate in spite of their remote circumstances has many benefits beyond the classroom. By learning and practicing collaboration in alternative ways, students will master the required technology while developing a critical skill for success in the modern workplace.
There are many challenges of teaching online. Learning how to teach an online class requires restructuring course components using pedagogical approaches, learning activities and tech tools that may be new to you and your online students. By instilling collaboration, frequent communication and active learning into your classroom, you can still ensure students receive valuable and engaging educational experiences, regardless of where learning takes place.