The two best practices for successful online teaching and learning

Since the onset of COVID-19 several years ago, the popularity of online learning has grown rapidly. Due to the flexibility, many students prefer to pursue their university studies from home at their own pace and at their own pace, taking into account family and professional obligations.

As an online instructor and faculty development practitioner for over 20 years, I have found the following advantages and disadvantages of online education:

Advantages:

  • The flexibility and convenience of students working at their own pace and time
  • No hassle of commuting or parking
  • Students can attend classes from any location of their choice
  • Students are responsible for their own learning
  • Improved student attendance
  • Students learn from other students from diverse backgrounds
  • Textbooks are usually administered as e-books and are less expensive
  • Tuition is generally more affordable than tuition charged for traditional courses

The inconvenients:

  • Students miss face-to-face interaction with instructors and students
  • Some students prefer to take traditional classes with an instructor present
  • Learning the required technology can be difficult and overwhelming
  • Students may not be self-disciplined, which facilitates procrastination
  • Online learning may not be the desired learning environment for everyone
  • The university may need to invest in additional technology training for instructors

During my tenure as a college professor, I served as Director of Faculty Development for several online colleges and universities. My main role was to make sure the instructors were productive and followed good adult learning principles in their online courses. One of the ways I did this was through extensive observation of their classes. In making these observations, I found that there were many key practices that successful instructors instituted in their teaching; however, after observing so many classrooms over the years, I have noticed a pattern of two key practices that have had the greatest impact on the level of success of these instructors. Additionally, instructors who used these two practices tended to have the best student evaluations. These two practices are 1) visibility and 2) immediate feedback.

Visibility

The first key practice is visibility. Being visible in an online classroom means being accessible to students. Students should know that the instructor is present and available and ready to respond to their concerns, needs, and requests.

An online instructor can achieve this in several ways. One way is to make sure the instructor posts their contact information and office hours in several areas of the classroom that are easily accessible, including the announcement forum and the curriculum. Students may need to contact the instructor – this will ensure they have a way to accomplish this.

A second way to be visible in the classroom is to ensure that the instructor responds to all student inquiries in a timely manner, in accordance with university policy. For most universities, this is between 24 and 48 hours. Instructors should try to show up to class at least five times a week.

Another way to be visible in the classroom is to post daily/weekly announcements. This is an opportunity for the instructor to communicate with all students and immediately address any upcoming tasks or concerns to the whole class. When I teach my online courses, I use the announcements section to post messages, updates, current trends in the field, weekly assignments and summaries, and information that students will need know for the coming week.

Finally, and most important for visibility, is to be present as much as possible on the discussion forum. The discussion board forum usually consists of a question that favors student responses and gives students a chance to meet other people. In the discussion board forum, students share some of their experiences, thoughts, and ideas with each other. The role of the instructor in the discussion forum is to encourage students to think critically and think outside the box, as well as to point students in the right direction. One way to do this is to use the Socratic method of questioning. The Socratic Method is designed to encourage students to continue the discussion. Additionally, instructors should consider publicly thanking students on the discussion board forum for submitted discussion posts that demonstrate critical thinking concepts. As stated, the role of the instructor in the discussion board forum is essential. The forum is where the instructor will be able to demonstrate the highest level of visibility in the class.

Immediate impressions

The second key practice that is important for online teaching success is immediate feedback. On the first day of class, instructors should clearly communicate how their students will be graded. Students should know what to expect from the course as well as what to expect from their instructor.

Back when you were in college, how many of you were eager to pick up your graded assignments and exams? Students want to know their homework and exam grades and don’t want to wait. This speed of grading shows students that the instructors care about the student. Instructors I’ve observed who return grades quickly tend to have higher levels of student satisfaction and better overall student retention in their classes. From experience, I have always made it a practice and a priority to mark all assignments and exams before the deadline given by the university. I can tell you from my own personal experience with student satisfaction surveys that students really appreciate prompt feedback on grading.

Instructors I’ve observed who are successful in their online courses consider immediate feedback to be not only about grading in a timely manner, but also responding to student inquiries as soon as possible.

Providing immediate feedback is not the only important criteria here, but also how the instructors provide the feedback as well. For example, when providing feedback on assignments and exams, it’s a good idea for instructors to be positive and encouraging while using interpretative and descriptive feedback. Even if the student did not handle a task perfectly, instructors should highlight areas that need improvement, but also focus on areas where the student performed well.

Encouraging students as well as pointing out their shortcomings in a positive manner is a major function of the instructor’s role and is essential to student success. Instructors should provide students with substantial feedback and examples and refer them to other sources for additional information as appropriate. Additionally, instructor feedback should be specific and provide clear direction on areas that need improvement.

Another way to provide immediate feedback is to contact students who missed class, did not participate, or performed poorly. There may be many reasons why they did not participate, and it is important to help them work through some of these issues and actively bring them back to class.

In summary, there are many key principles that instructors need to know to be successful as an online instructor. However, based on my observation as a faculty development practitioner in many online classrooms, I have found that the most successful instructors use similar key practices. I noticed that two key practices had a major impact on their success: visibility and immediate feedback. From these observations, I also came to the conclusion that these two key practices were strongly linked to student satisfaction, as well as improved academic perseverance.


Dr. Al Infande is a professor of online human resources at Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Ala. He is also a professor in several colleges and universities where he teaches human resource management courses.



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