My “Aha!” Moments in Online Teaching

Aha! Moments in TeachingWe’ve all experienced times when something clicked, we “got” it, and this new-found understanding moved us to the next level. In the context of online teaching these moments can make us more productive, efficient, and engaged educators.

Online education offers instructors a lot of opportunity for this kind of discovery and we see it in our students, too. These “aha!” or “eureka!” moments propel us forward and sometimes even have an impact our colleagues and others in the industry.

In preparation for a recent #IOLchat session dedicated to this topic, I developed a list of my own lessons learned along the way. These moments of clarity are related to communication, technology use, and time management.

  • It’s not the end of the world if the technology doesn’t work – expect it not to sometimes. I’ve assisted professors who were essentially and inexplicably locked out of synchronous sessions as they went live, narrowly avoided panic when I had no backup plan for contacting students during a server outage, and lost all Internet connectivity in the middle of a live Twitter chat. I’ve also tried to incorporate new tools that completely flopped with my students. The lesson here is to embrace the dynamic nature of the platforms and tools, knowing that they will change in good ways and bad. And consider yourself (and your students) in perpetual “test mode.” While the reliability of web-based tools has gotten a lot better since my first experiences with online courses, there are always a few kinks to work out. Our troubleshooting skills get better with each new problem we encounter.
  • It’s hard to communicate too much – announcements, individual emails, discussion replies, updates, reminders … go for it. How often do you initiate contact with your class as a whole or with individual students? This is a big part of how we establish our presence in an online course, and model the ways in which students should communicate with instructors and each other. It’s something I work on continuously – what else do they need to know, where are there gaps in understanding, how can I further clarify what is expected? A participant in the recent chat session challenged this thinking, and rightfully so. I think a flurry of messages can create extra “noise” resulting in students who tune everything out. My revised statement adds that communication with thoughtful purpose, relevance, and appropriate timing is hard to overdo.
  • Keeping students on track keeps me on track, too. I admit to being AWOL from one or two discussion forums over the years. I’ve lost track of the day of the week, forgetting to go into a course site and check for student messages on a day a big assignment is due. When I get behind on facilitating class activities and providing feedback, my students seem to slow down, too. The situation improves, however, when I practice what I preach. This means printing out course syllabi and keeping them on my desk for daily progress checks, reviewing the course site daily (if not more frequently), and putting student assignment due dates on my calendar with reminders and alerts. We’re all busy, students and instructors alike, and we’re all in it together, so a team effort is required for success, particularly with an accelerated course timeline.
  • Collaboration is positive and powerful. I’ve personally experienced the benefits of working with a diverse group of people and across industries, and every new project changes my perspective in some way ultimately reaching my courses and students. One mentor in particular, Shauna Schullo, modeled the best of what I think academic collaboration can be. By inviting others to be actively participate in her research and teaching adventures, and sharing credit for the work accomplished, she made a lasting impact on a lot of learning professionals who went on to apply this generous approach in multiple contexts. This strategy makes a real difference not only when working with academic colleagues, but also in classes that foster an environment where students don’t feel like they are competing against each other or the system-at-large.
  • Online courses require care and feeding. A graduate student in North Carolina contacted me recently to ask, “What do you wish you had known before starting your first instructional design job?” In my own graduate-level course work, projects came to a quick and final end, but in practice working for another university I soon realized the need to keep the review and revision cycle going. While initial project completion is a significant accomplishment, the nature of online resources is that they change. Even after a new course is up and running successfully there is always room for improvement and updates that keep the content current and the systems working.

Learning From and With Each Other

Looking back at my list, most of these epiphanies happened through practice, often after reading about new initiatives at other schools or talking about online teaching and learning with other educators. I also began by “teaching as I was taught” drawing on my experiences, good and bad, in undergrad and grad programs, online and on ground, high- and low-tech. The experience of being a student is one we’ve all had and should make a conscious effort not to forget.

I’m certainly not the only online instructor documenting my ideas about online education. Take a look at what other’s are sharing, starting with:

  • 8 Lessons Learned from Online Teaching – This brief EDUCAUSE video from Patrick Lowenthal and Joanna Dunlap at the University of Colorado Denver, emphasizes their favorite techniques for selecting technologies and connecting with students.
  • 10 Things I’ve Learned About Online Teaching – Michelle Everson’s article in eLearn Magazine shares her realizations after five years of teaching online.
  • Mine, Yours, and Ours – Curby Alexander describes one semester in his life as a college professor, which includes online and hybrid courses, custom and standardized course sites, and reflection on “some of the big issues facing higher-ed teaching.”
  • What About You?

    Chance favors the connected mind.” This quote from science writer Steven Johnson gets at the idea that these “aha” and “eureka” moments aren’t the result of a sudden spark or sheer luck, and we usually don’t come by them alone. We are encouraged to “expose [ourselves] to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine.”

    March was a reflective month for me as I attended the retirement ceremony of my Major Professor, and reunited with doctoral classmates. All of us are nearing 10 years post graduation, and have embarked on different career paths. We are sharing our experiences with their peers through papers and conferences, and in more informal ways as well. I continue to learn from these people as we connect in social networks and develop collaborative projects.

    What are your big breakthrough moments in online teaching and learning? Take some time to reflect on your own path to online teaching, and consider how you might share your ideas and advice with other educators to help us all improve our work.

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    Source: Inside Online Learning Blog