Welcome to the new normal, teaching adult students from a laptop or computer. Or at least this is what many instructors are beginning to experience. Yet there is a segment of higher education with those, like myself, who have already been providing transformative education via virtual classrooms for quite a long time.

Not only are we well-adjusted to this type of learning, we already know it is an effective method for teaching students, even while many instructors are just now making this discovery and attempting to adapt their teaching strategies.

What gave me a unique perspective of online teaching to begin with was my experience as an online learner. I earned a majority of my academic degrees from an online school, and this taught me the value of presence, interactions, and feedback. Now with 15 years under my belt and counting, and roles from leadership to faculty development included, I have developed a sense of how to create conditions that are conducive to learning within an environment in which you cannot see your learners. Yet even with that level of experience, I am well aware that no class is ever going to perform the same, as no two learners are alike, and the needs of learners continue to evolve over time.

What I have established are a set of online teaching practices that I consider to be continued works in progress, as I look to always reflect upon what is working or needs updating as I interact with my learners. What I seek to do is to maintain a high level of excellence in teaching, which translates into having a student-centered focus in everything I do. I set the bar high for myself, as I know the developmental needs of the learner must always be the primary concern for what I am doing, any time I post a message, send a message, or I'm involved in class discussions. Yet even with the best of intentions, there may be learners who are difficult to connect with or who do not want to be responsive to outreach attempts, along with those who are not well-suited to asynchronous communication.

Whenever you are challenged by a learner, this becomes an opportunity to demonstrate you really do care about this learner as a person. Or you can allow yourself to become further isolated and indifferent to what this learner actually needs because of the improper situation you find yourself in now. From my own experience, the greater the learner challenge, the more of a defining moment it becomes for your teaching practice.  

Be Certain to Have Enough Time Budgeted

What I have discovered, as an essential element of my strategy, is to allocate enough time for my teaching duties, and budget additional time for learner contact. Learners are often surprised I am willing to offer one-on-one instruction with them, and yet from my perspective this should be part of an instructor's strategy for responsive availability. More importantly, this allows me to be available when issues arise or I need to contact a learner who is struggling. It is necessary to monitor class conditions and intervene when needed, to help prevent learners from disengaging.

Consider What Learners Expect

When learners begin a new course, there is some apprehension about what to expect from a new instructor. Their initial questions may include: Will this instructor be easy to get along with? Will this instructor help me when I need it? Will I be able to reach this instructor when I need assistance? What will it be like to interact with this instructor? There are many other questions similar to these which are likely to arise and accompany a feeling of discomfort until the class is underway. There may also be a sense of hope that the class will bring about a new start if the last class did not bring about the outcomes or results desired.

Initially learners may be open to your feedback and the developmental notes you have to share. Or there may been negative experiences in the prior class and now they have a resistant attitude about instructor feedback and guidance. Some learners may not be well-prepared or have the proper disposition for learning to begin with, and the longer this continues the more uncooperative they may appear to be when working in class. What I have learned is to look past the initial struggles and see the potential in each learner, no matter how hard I must work to help each of them, even those who I ultimately cannot help because they do not want to be helped.

Addressing Learner Challenges While Maintaining Excellence

When I began teaching online 15 years ago, I made a transition from teaching in a corporate classroom environment to a virtual environment. The immediate adjustment I made was to the loss of watching the expression on learner faces as they engaged with the course materials, while being available to answer their questions and interact with them. Fortunately, I was hired by an online school that offered extensive training and I was able to grow as a professional with that school for almost a decade. I was able to learn how to translate my classroom teaching style into a virtual style, through discussions, feedback, and every interaction.

Even with this level of experience, there are common challenges that arise on occasion. These are issues you have likely encountered as well, and will continue to experience throughout your teaching practice. What is going to further intensify each of these scenarios is the current worldwide crisis, as many learners may be feeling heightened emotions and anxiety. For each possible scenario, I've shared strategies to help you address the learner in a manner which allows you to still maintain excellence in your online teaching practice.

Students Who Do Not Want to Respond:

An online class is not the type of class you can check into two or three times a week, and hope all learners will be actively engaged on their own. Your active engagement and presence, as an online instructor, is needed not only to reassure your learners you are available, you want to be checking in and following their ongoing progress. If a learner is failing to meet the goals of the course, some form of contact is needed.

There is a possibility the learner will not respond. This is when the learner may fall off the grid, unless you are keeping track of your learners in some organized manner. If a message of some form was not effective, a call may help to bridge the distance and create a bond between you and this learner. The point is to encourage the learner as a person, with empathy and concern.

Students Who Do Not Want to Cooperate:

There are going to be times throughout a course when you will make a request from a learner, whether it is something insignificant or something much more important such as a plagiarism incident, and the learner does not respond. This may make you feel as if the learner has intentionally ignored you and there may be a negative emotional reaction felt on your part. I understand as I had to grow myself with regards to emotional intelligence and I am far from perfect.

As a teacher, we are still human ourselves, and when we are faced with challenges our own emotions can spill over into our work. So I speak from experience when I say, you have to learn to control how you feel before you respond to any incident which causes you to feel something negative. When you have your emotions under control, approach this learner with the intent to demonstrate empathy, even if this is a plagiarism incident, as it can still be a teachable moment. There are learners who are easily intimidated by instructors, and a phone call can change the entire impression held by simply making a human connection.

Students Who Do Not Want to Engage:

This also speaks to the learner who has not been substantially engaged in the course and you realize there is the potential for this learner to be withdrawn soon. Now more than ever, a personal outreach attempt is needed. This learner needs to know there is an instructor who cares about him or her as a person. I understand it is likely you may have a late policy and be unable to accept late work; however, attempt to work with this learner in whatever manner you can by developing a Plan of Action for re-engagement back into the class. Some learners get a week or two behind and then develop a sense of giving up. Your words of encouragement can bring them back to the class.

Students Who Are Not Receptive:

These are the learners who do not seem to read your feedback and implement what you have suggested through the guidance provided. If this is what you are perceiving to be the case, then go back and review the feedback provided. Ask yourself this question: How would you respond to your own feedback if you were the learner? Then consider new strategies to refresh how you provide feedback. Can you ask a question to help them think further about the course topics? Can you provide video feedback? I've been providing video feedback and discovering learners feel a better connection to the guidance offered with this approach.

Students Who Cannot Communicate Properly:

This is the scenario in which learners send email or classroom messages which are not appropriate for a variety of reasons. It takes time and practice to learn how to communicate solely through the use of words, without considering the tone that might be inferred. How do you respond to a message which you believe is improper? What I do not recommend is starting a long email or message chain back and forth. This can only escalate the matter. I suggest you either encourage a phone call appointment, or you call the learner. Again, this is a matter of building a bond with the learner and demonstrating empathy, to help the learner understand this is not a me versus the instructor situation. Even if the situation cannot be resolved in one call, you can still establish some measure of completion with the call.

You Can Maintain High Standards and Be Responsive

Learners who challenge you are not an indicator you have failed as an instructor in any manner. There will never be a perfect classroom environment, with a perfect set of learners. This just does not exist in reality. The nature of distance learning is going to present unique challenges for adults to adapt to and some will do so better than others. Some adults will find it challenging to learn in this environment, and their frustrations will appear in class posts and messages. Other adult learners will stop making an attempt and begin to disengage from the class. What you can do, as the instructor, is to develop your own set of high standards, and maintain a highly active and engaged presence in your online class. Be determined to "see" each learner as an individual, each with the potential to learn, and be ready to respond in a caring and empathetic manner. When any of the above scenarios occurs, this is time not to feel you have been beaten down, but your time to shine. Every time you are able to help the most challenged of all learners, you will remember why it is you love to teach. This will be transformative not only for you, but your learners as well.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. 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. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

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