Students need to have a voice in online education because they are on the receiving end of the education. Yet, all too often, they aren’t given an opportunity to share their thoughts about a course, content delivery, and overall quality, until the class is over.
As an online doctoral student, an instructional technologist working in the field of distance education, as well as an online teacher, I would like to share some ideas about best practices and student needs in online teaching and learning from my perspective.
Instructor presence and responsiveness in online courses is foundational to quality in-class experiences for students. Online students, physically separated from the instructor and classmates, have a deep need for input, feedback, and attention from the instructor, as well as fellow students. The instant gratification of interactions and affirmations in the face-to-face environment is not available online, so instructors must employ a heightened sensitivity to the desires and communication needs of distance students. Specifically, frequent, short bursts of feedback from the instructor are highly effective; this type of communication in the form of written text, and audio and video clips, is well-received by students. That being said, the intent or type of message isn’t as important as the attempt to make contact, give attention, and show support to students— this is considered paramount.
One of the best practices I have witnessed first-hand in online courses is when an instructor, and/or student, makes good use of a variety of forms of communication within a one-week unit. Each week students hope for communication from their peers, as well as the instructor, on an “every-other-day” basis, at minimum. Variety in communication can arrive in the following forms: succinct, probing questions inside discussion threads, links to extra resources posted in various locations within the course, posts on social media sites that are supplementary to the content in the course (mostly socially educative in nature), email messages regarding content, announcements about upcoming stimuli or changes within the course, and text messages that are content or logistics-related. Even a brief phone call to students to welcome them to the course can work wonders for building connectedness and increasing motivation. The more instructors and students stimulate one another with brief bits of feedback and communication throughout the week, the more engaged and proactive instructors and students become.
Engaging content is another key factor in a quality online teaching and learning adventure for students, as well as instructors. While the instructor is ultimately responsible for the content, students can choose to interact and indulge in it, or not. One of the first steps is for instructors to facilitate a variety of forms of learning (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.) in the content delivery and required activities upon creation of the course. For example, instructors can offer a video about a particular concept, while providing text and diagrams to illustrate the concept, and while demonstrating the concept in action through a specific example or case study. This is a lot of preparation work for the instructor initially, however, it provides the foundation for intense learning and it makes the “user” experience really stimulating.
Because students learn differently, and have different frames of reference, it is ideal when they are offered a few choices in the types of required assignments, discussion threads, projects, and/or exams in online classes. As Dr. Wayne Dyer said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
I love this quote because it rings true in so many settings, but it is specifically true in education. When students are given a choice in their learning, they may see the assignment differently, and perhaps understand the concept better. Choices allow students to learn more because they provide an opportunity for the student to pick an area of interest at their knowledge level. Not to mention that students will likely show more success because they had some stake in choosing the assignment. Students will likely choose something about which they are passionate and knowledgeable, or about which they want to learn; when this occurs, they have an automatic motivation for completing the assignment, and they take ownership and accountability in their work.
In a graduate-level online instructional design course I completed in Fall 2013, a final project was required. Small bits of the project were due throughout the semester, so the end result was not so daunting. The most exciting thing to me was that I was able to choose the entity upon which my project was centered. It was an entity that I cared deeply about, and it was in an area specific to my interest. I had the project done before the final deadline because my project was work-related and in line with my passion. This was a great recipe for success for me as a graduate student.
Another best practice I would recommend from the student perspective is to offer a few synchronous opportunities for students to interact with the instructor, as well as other students, throughout the course duration. A professor acquaintance of mine offers online office hours when students can choose to meet with her in person, via phone, FaceTime/Skype, email, text message or Second Life (the online virtual reality). She has found that even local students choose a mediated form of synchronous communication, likely for convenience, and perhaps for some novelty reasons. Even if students are unable to attend, they will appreciate the effort on the part of the instructor, and they may even arrange their own synchronous meeting times amongst themselves modeling their behavior after that of the instructor. Also, offering a synchronous, or asynchronous for that matter, teaching assistant or online supplemental instructor is encouraging and comforting to students — especially when subject matter difficulty levels rise. This is a relatively simple undertaking as well, and sometimes, veteran students will volunteer to serve in this capacity.
The final, and perhaps most important, step to advancing quality in the online learning environment, is for students to actively engage in the content and to try out learning via the different modes offered by the instructor. Students need to be willing to attempt new things in online learning, and they need to begin with an open mind. It is a give-take-give scenario; the instructor provides choices for learning, the student engages in them, and then, the student shares her/his newfound knowledge with the instructor and classmates. This is the ultimate win-win hope for distance education!