Why do you aspire to teach, or continue to teach, online classes? This is a question I have been asking myself for over a decade now, and I use it as a means of self-reflection, to determine if I am growing and adapting as the needs of learners are changing. What I’ve found is the technology has certainly changed, and the tools within the classroom have also changed, but there are some basic learner needs that have remained unchanged. For example, learners need to know their online instructor is present and engaged in the class, and easily accessible. This should be a simple requirement to meet, and yet I know of many instructors who check into their classes only when needed, making their job a series of rote functions. Do you believe learners notice this disposition? You can be certain they do, and wish for further engagement by the instructor. Yet if this is an ongoing pattern, from one instructor to the next, learners may come to believe this is what they should expect from an online school.
Who is responsible for creating a nurturing and welcoming class? The answer of course is the instructor. Even when a course is pre-built and has all elements designed and in place, it is the instructor’s active engagement that brings the class to life by modeling best practices and implementing learner-centered strategies. The strategies I’ve developed are a result of time and practice, noting what has been effective, and adapting to what learner’s need in order to continue their academic development. This involves more than just being “seen” in the class by learners, it also includes all interactions with them, which are teaching moments in and of themselves. Whether it is an email or a discussion post, everything an instructor responds to or develops has meaning, and a potential to engage the learner further in the class. Perhaps the following strategies will help you to continue to develop your instructional practice, while also creating a sense of purpose for the duties you perform in the classroom.
Words Hold Power
Be careful what you write, post, or send. This is the essence of what an online instructor must consider when interacting with their learners. It is not a matter of living in fear, rather it involves remembering to be composed, poised, and empathetic towards anyone who is submitting a written assignment, posting a message within the discussion board, or sending an email. Those words are the representation of a real person, someone with hopes, dreams, and fears. The words used may or may not have been the best choice and yet it is you who must see beyond those words and try to decipher the meaning or intent or questions being posed. Then an answer or follow-up needs to be done with a sense of care for the well-being of the person it is addressed to, even if you don’t understand, feel a negative emotional reaction, or want further clarification. You must be in a neutral position when using your communication as your words have tremendous power and once written, posted, or sent, those words cannot be taken back. Think carefully, choose wisely, make a draft and walk away for a time, and never press send when you are in an emotional state of mind. If you can remain in an emotionally calm state, your interactions will become much more effective and less stressful.
The Absence of Direct Contact
When an instructor is in a traditional classroom, there is a physical presence established, regardless of the disposition felt at any given time. Whether there are feelings of excitement about what can be taught, or a sense of just wanting to make it through the required tasks, the presence is there and learners experience it through their senses. With an online class, the experience occurs through the learning management system or LMS, and the technology used by many online schools has advanced significantly with regards to interactivity over the past few years. But the overall feel of the online class is that of a static experience, rather than a dynamic person who is moving around and available to engage. This poses a new challenge, creating a sense of presence when there is no direct contact available. This why online teaching is not just about managing the mechanics of the classroom and completing the required tasks, it should be focused on what can be done to humanize the learning experience.