In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many higher education instructors were forced to pivot their instruction online to allow teaching and learning to continue. If you’re a professor who teaches hundreds (or even dozens) at an institution with tens of thousands of students, this can present new challenges—especially if you’re being asked to teach an online course for the first time. Thankfully, the move to online teaching can be relatively painless, even in times of significant disruption.
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 stretch. Yet in online teaching, lectures are completely different than 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 readings as the core part of the teaching experience.
Here are three challenges you may face in your teaching as an online instructor and some useful instructional strategies to help you navigate through them.
The challenge: passive students
Unless thoughtfully crafted, online instruction can turn students into passive observers rather than active participants. Although these unengaged students may acquire the lecture content, they aren’t able to apply their learnings outside the virtual classroom. They might pass assessments and complete learning activities, but they aren’t planning on using their new knowledge to make connections with previous material or real-world examples. For learning to be effective, students must be engaged in the quality, breadth and depth of their learning.
In online learning environments, it’s important to help students engage with course material in a way that makes sense for them. Providing them with ample flexible opportunities to reinforce course concepts will ensure that learning material sticks with them, even after they’ve completed their final assessment.
Especially when students are learning remotely, educators must recognize that students will only engage with course materials if they see them as valuable. With digital courseware, online teachers can adopt or create a customizable interactive textbook to extend active learning outside of class meetings. With in-line interactive questions, it is 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 and participation data to their learning management system (LMS).
The challenge: staying connected with students
In an online classroom, 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 key to building strong connections with learners in an online environment. 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 the course of a semester. Since this is an ongoing process, regular online formative assessments can build a continuous feedback loop. Using tools such as online assessments or platforms like Top Hat, you can provide specific, immediate feedback to students, giving instructors the chance to evaluate student 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 personal devices—the responses are then 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. This can make it easier to identify students who are struggling and allows faculty to reach out with additional resources and support.
The challenge: encouraging collaboration
Interaction among students is one of the single most important elements of successful online education. Collaborative engagement motivates learning and promotes a deeper and more critically aware approach to the subject matter. Unfortunately, collaboration is one of the most difficult things to achieve when students are not physically present together.
Many discussion assignments do not support organic conversation. Posts are asynchronous, formal responses to prompts and so the required “discussion” of other students’ ideas is understandably forced. Such forums are more akin to prepared response papers than group exercises, and this may well be appropriate for your online content.
To encourage collaborative problem-solving, 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 colleague’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 gives students the opportunity to apply course material to real-world case studies in small groups. This method, whether used in group learning or individually, 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 through 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. It can require restructuring course components using new pedagogical approaches, learning activities and tech tools that may be new to you and your students. The pandemic has surely caused a change in the usual teaching and learning practices employed in the on-campus classroom environments, but that doesn’t mean they must be abandoned altogether. 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.