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.

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 three common challenges of online teaching and some useful instructional strategies to help you navigate them.

The challenge: Passive students

Unless thoughtfully crafted with intentional instructional design choices, online teaching can, unfortunately, 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.

Instructional strategy

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 a teaching strategy 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 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.

Instructional strategy

Feedback loops are key to building 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. By using tools such as online assessments or active learning platforms like Top Hat, 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 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.

Instructional strategy

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 a collaborative learning strategy 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 shift to online learning can be difficult. 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.

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