As more traditional institutions expand online learning options and online institutions add new programs, it seems that there are new opportunities to teach online. There is an undeniable draw to online teaching. There is no commute and you can work from home or wherever there is an Internet connection. This convenience also includes challenges. The online classroom is not like the traditional one and requires specific skills.
How is online teaching different from teaching in a traditional classroom?
- Student Expectations – With an increased use of technology and social media in courses, students expect quick responses to their emails, posts and assignments. You will likely see time lines built into course policies by the institution offering the courses that require faculty response and grading to take place within certain parameters (e.g. 24 hours to answer email, 7 calendar days to grade assignments). This not only helps the instructor with time management but also sets realistic expectations for students.
- Time Commitment – Your time involved in teaching an online course may be spent differently than a traditional course. You will spend a lot of time reading and writing. In addition to grading papers and projects, you will also receive email from your students and will need to participate in online discussion boards. You may also have students in your online course from various locations and time zones. You will need to consider the time differences when responding to questions and setting up calls and synchronous class sessions.
- Online Presence – Education researchers Palloff and Pratt highlight the need for online instructors to be comfortable having an online presence. It is important for you to provide information about yourself and your background to your students. This not only helps you build a community within your course, but also helps students to view you as a "real person" since you may never meet face-to-face.
Qualifications and Competencies
Each institution will have its own preferences and policies for hiring online instructors. There are several qualifications you can expect to see on vacancy announcements.
- Education level – Teaching in higher education usually requires at least a Masters degree with 18 credit hours of coursework in the academic discipline you teach. This is also true of online teaching, although there may be some flexibility based on your work experience in the discipline.
- Work Experience – Many online universities are specifically looking for working professionals with years of practical experience in the course subjects they will teach.
- Teaching Experience – Previous teaching experience is also important, with a preference for previous online teaching experience. Breaking into that first online position can take persistence!
There are specific skills involved in the successful facilitation of an online course. Many of these apply to traditional instructors as well.
- Technology – Competency with the basics of email, word processing, and Internet use are critical. You should also have some experience troubleshooting problems with your computer and Internet connection.
- Communication – You will be speaking with students on the phone and using other technologies such as Skype, as well as virtual meeting spaces like Adobe Connect or Elluminate. You will also be providing most of your feedback in writing, in email and in class discussion boards.
- Time Management – The research is mixed on whether or not online courses require more time to teach than traditional courses, however, you'll find questions related to time management, your availability, and your commitment to online teaching in hiring questionnaires and interviews. Online courses may require more time than a traditional face-to-face course. Due to the nature of online communication, particularly asynchronous, more time will be spent on one-on-one responses and feedback to students via email and discussion boards. You will also spend more time reading student responses and preparing for each new term – review this preparation checklist for online instructors at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
- Flexibility and Problem Solving – As an online instructor you may find yourself the first stop for students with questions about the course and about the technology used to deliver the course. Know the available resources, such as a technical help desk, writing center, etc. and be willing to continuously learn and add new resources to your tool kit.
There are self-assessments available to you free, online, as a way to measure your abilities against the expectations of an online education employer. Work through the examples provided below. These are brief and may help you develop a list of strengths you can emphasize, and a list of skills to enhance with further training.
- Computer Literacy from American Public University System (APUS) – Before you can apply with APUS, you must complete this computer literacy questionnaire. This is a good list of basic computer skills and also addresses time management and commitment.
- Technology Skills Self-Assessment Survey from Florida Gulf Coast University – This institution recommends their technology skills assessment for instructors and staff, as well as students.
- Faculty Self-Assessment from Penn State – This online self-assessment includes the competencies we've discussed as well as organizational skills. You'll also receive detailed feedback including tips and links to helpful resources.
Prepare Yourself and Meet the Challenge!
Have you taken an online class? If not, experiencing an online course from the perspective of a student can make you aware of some of the challenges. Being a student in an online course is also a great way to get familiar with the online course format and communication tools.
Review your education and work experience. Assess your skills. Are there areas in which you could improve? As a new online instructor, your institution may provide resources and support to help you with your first courses. Online teaching involves skills that take practice to master. Ask about faculty mentorship programs, faculty development workshops, and new faculty orientations. You can also reach out to other online instructors:
- read their reflections on sites like Faculty Focus,
- join in online discussion groups, such as those found in LinkedIn, and
- continue to collect helpful additional information and resources.