What is the essence of online teaching? Should an online instructor be referred to as a teacher, facilitator, educator – or perhaps all three are applicable? In the reality of online teaching, all three of those words apply as an online instructor must know how to teach a subject, facilitate a learning process, and be an educator by knowing how adults learn.
At the heart of online teaching are the relationships and interactions developed and sustained with students, the personal connections made that humanize the learning experience, and the discussions that are nurtured to engage students in meaningful conversations. The work of an online instructor can become very demanding because of the nature of facilitating a learning process within a virtual environment when instructors cannot physically see or interact with their students.
From my experience with online teaching and faculty development I've learned that most instructors can manage the basics concerning general classroom management. However, there are many other aspects of online teaching that must be learned as a product of time and practice to ensure that students are fully engaged in the virtual class, working to the best of their capabilities, actively participating in the discussions, and developing the essential academic skills. In other words, online teaching is not just a function to complete but a process to be nurtured.
To become a more productive, effective, and engaging instructor there must be a commitment made to constant self-reflection and ongoing development, along with personal and professional growth. Overall, professional development needs to be viewed as a combination of proactive strategies, rather than the completion of an occasional class to fulfill an annual requirement, if an instructor is to build a successful long-term career with online teaching.
Establishing Standards for Teaching
There are two types of standards that an online instructor needs to consider as part of their ongoing development and the first is established by the school, which is typically stated as contractual facilitation duties. These duties outline specific responsibilities that must be met as a condition of continued employment. The responsibilities are often related to "what" the instructor is to teach and "when" specific tasks must be completed.
The expectations are stated in terms of classroom functions that may include a number of discussion posts, feedback deadlines, and the list continues. It is highly unlikely that a faculty contract can fully itemize every possible instructional strategy that must be utilized to ensure a class functions properly or the instructor is performing to the very best of their ability.
There are likely additional standards in place that are stated within a faculty handbook or outlined as faculty procedures that provide a quality measurement tool. What many schools rely upon is the use of classroom audits and reviews, along with the provision of faculty developmental resources when performance issues are identified.
Overall, the establishment of standards is meant to ensure that classes are facilitated effectively; however, that is only a starting point for creating conditions that promote learning. The other set of standards that are necessary are those that each instructor develops for their instructional practice. These are personal and professional standards that establishes the "how" for online teaching; how well an instructor performs what is required.
Developing New Routines
Over time every instructor develops routines as a means of managing their classes effectively and efficiently. There are common habits that can either work for or against an instructor and includes habits of time and productivity. It is possible for instructors to develop the same issues that students do as related to time management. For example, if an instructor's feedback is due within seven days and they wait until day five to begin the review process they could run into a time crunch.
It is easy to tell when an instructor has run out of time simply as it shows up in feedback that appears to have been hurriedly put together. Some instructors have a perception that students never read their feedback so the minimum effort possible is believed to be enough. However, if that is accurate then the only way to change that perception about feedback is to begin to make it meaningful.
Another common habit is what I refer to as instructional sameness and that simply refers to relying upon the same teaching style over time without ever adding in any variety or creating new instructional strategies. This is especially applicable to how well an instructor interacts with students during the class discussions.
If an instructor has not put time and thought into their discussion question responses then the conversations will not be as engaging as they could be. For example, responding to students and complimenting them on their posts without asking thought-provoking questions could likely bring that particular discussion to a halt. It is also important for an instructor to share their professional insight and experiences, along with additional resources to help further the students' understanding of the course topics.
Strategies to Use for Professional Development
There is a correlation between instructors who lose effectiveness with their approach to teaching online classes and a lack of professional development. This does not mean you have to seek out another degree, unless it is part of your career plan, but you can develop strategies that will prompt your growth and improve your instructional practice.
#1. Find Opportunities to Engage
What will help to promote professional development is finding opportunities that allow you to engage in communities of professionals who share a similar interest in online teaching and distance learning, which will allow you to gain new perspectives and strategies that in will turn prompt your own self-analysis and assessment. Start by looking at the associations related to the field of distance learning and review the resources offered. LinkedIn has numerous groups you can join and engage in discussions that are relevant to the field. You can also look for webinars or classes that your school offers as a means of engaging with other educators at your school.
#2. Develop Networking Opportunities
Another method of gaining resources and connecting with other educators is to utilize social media such as Twitter or LinkedIn, as you can gain networking connections to a global academic community. The LinkedIn groups you join will allow you to connect with educators from around the world. As a result of my involvement in these types of groups I have been asked to contribute articles and blog posts, and I have been asked to participate in research studies. Typically networking is viewed as a job search strategy and while that certainly applies, there is a greater purpose and that is to discover new instructional ideas and methods.
#3. Strengthen Your Knowledgebase
I mentioned above the importance of being an educator and knowing how adults learn. This is the first self-development practice you can begin – learning adult education basics. Look for authors on the LinkedIn Pulse Education Channel who publish relevant work. What you can also do is to establish areas of professional interest and then conduct research.
Two helpful topics to read further about include andragogy and critical thinking. Most instructors have access to online library databases so it can be easy to find current research that will inform your teaching practice. For example, there are a number of professional journals you can read that are related to the field of adult education and online learning.
#4. Develop Your Subject Matter Expertise
As an instructor you must know your subject matter well and be able to teach it. Most instructors are hired because of subject matter expertise, a specific number of credit hours, and/or experience that is related to the subject field. Does that mean you know everything possible about that subject? While you may hold varying degrees of knowledge it would be beneficial for your teaching practice and your classes to continue to read about current thinking in the field, new theories and ideas, and find new case studies or real world examples that add value to your class, especially during the class discussions.
#5. Utilize Self-Reflection as Learning
This is an area of self-development that can be challenging for instructors simply due to the time involved to sit uninterrupted and reflect upon their teaching practice. Most online instructors are very busy and the weekly duties don't stop until the class ends. But that is a time when valuable feedback can be obtained, if an instructor will make an effort to stop for a few minutes and itemize what went well during the class, the teaching challenges that came up and need to be addressed, and what was learned that can be applied to their overall instructional strategy. If everything went well and there were no challenges, along with no needed changes identified, then you have learned that your teaching practice is effective now.
#6. Experience Your Students' Perspective
What can be an eye-opening experience for online instructors is to enroll in an online professional development class and then as student gain insight into what that experience is like as you can develop a new perspective about how you teach. You may decide by the end of that class that you have an effective instructional practice now and you may also pick up some new tips and techniques as well. For example, I've learned about new technological tools that can help to bring my instruction to life in a virtual class through my involvement in professional development classes.
#7. Utilize Feedback You've Received
Just as you tell your students to read their feedback and ask questions, so too should any online instructor utilize feedback from peer reviews or other classroom audits. If those reviews are only conducted annually then take a look at the resources provided by your school, reacquaint yourself with the faculty standards that are in place, and conduct your own self-analysis or classroom audit.
A formal faculty review of a class can provide you with a wealth of information if you are open to receiving constructive criticism. I understand that this type of feedback is never perfect and may seem to be subjective in nature; however, take from it what you can to improve how you teach online classes and it will be of benefit to you and your students.
What Is Your Teaching Purpose?
At present the number of opportunities for online educators is less than the pool of people who want to teach online classes. That means you must establish yourself as a distinguished educator rather than someone who just meets the minimum requirements if you want to continue to receive classes or new opportunities. But more importantly, if you are determined to create an environment that is conducive to learning then you need to make time available throughout your week to ensure that you are actively involved in your class and responsive to your students. The question to consider is whether you want to work towards average or exceptional performance. This means you either meet or exceed the required standards that are in place, along with your own personal standards of excellence.
It is also important to consider if you are functioning in the classroom for yourself and with a focus on completing the required tasks, or you are concerned about the well-being of your students and what you can do to ensure their educational needs are met. Instructors can either rely upon the same teaching methods that they have used for many classes or over several years, or they can engage in professional development as a means of helping their instructional practice to evolve and improve. Every instructor has room to grow professionally no matter how long they have been teaching online classes. The success of any online educator, as well as the success of their students, depends upon the willingness of the instructor to learn, grow, and adapt their classroom facilitation skills.
About Dr. J
Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005, with roles which included Chief Academic Officer, Dean, Faculty Director, Faculty Manager, and online instructor. He has extensive experience with curriculum development, having developed hundreds of courses for bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs.
Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. He has also has been a career development specialist since 2003. As a small business owner, Dr. J provides resume writing and career coaching. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
To learn about Dr. J's immediate availability in a full time or part time capacity, please visit: http://www.drbruceajohnson.com/about-dr-j
Dr. J's new book is available as a downloadable PDF, and as an eBook:
- Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators
- For information, please visit: http://tinyurl.com/ycqm32fv
Dr. J has also published the following resources:
- Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs
- Appreciative Andragogy: Taking the Distance Out of Distance Learning
- Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Adjunct Faculty Who Teach Business
- To learn more about these affordable resources, please visit: http://tinyurl.com/z5wve3w
To learn more about Dr. Bruce A. Johnson, please visit the following resources:
Dr. J's Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/drj