As technology rapidly evolves and becomes more pervasive in our lives and our students' lives, it is also becoming more prevalent at all levels of education. Higher education leaders are looking for ways to meet challenges related to budgets and access, while addressing academic objectives and learner needs. Online learning is one way for institutions to meet the many requirements. While not everyone is interested in technology-enriched learning, and it's not a remedy for all that ails education, it is making headway even in traditional classrooms.
"Oh please. Make this stuff go away."
This is the first comment on a recent post titled Study Suggests Many Professors Use Interactive Tools Ineffectively in Online Courses from the Wired Campus blog. It's unclear whether the commenter was referring to the interactive tools or the online courses, but the sense of frustration comes through loud and clear.
The comment caught my attention as an online instructor teaching a course this semester after a break. As the term began I encountered my own set of challenges and frustrations with everything from administrative processes to the school's learning management system. Some days you just want to make the problems go away, but the more productive choice is to develop better strategies and reflect on lessons learned.
Plan Your Approach
Whether you choose to teach online or are assigned to do so, that first course can be daunting. Before you get to the point of wanting to "make this go away" consider several strategies to enhance your preparation and approach:
- Start slowly. Going from completely on-ground to completely online requires a significant effort in terms of assessing and often reconfiguring content, learning how to navigate the various presentation and communication tools, and putting all of the pieces in place within an online course site. Consider a progression that takes you from integrating one new aspect of technology this term to teaching a course delivered completely online in a future term. You may also want to explore some of the blended learning models offering a mix of both online and face-to-face interaction.
- Embrace "a spirit of experimentation" and "tolerance of failure." These are two of the key requirements for teaching successfully with technology presented in the Handbook for Emerging Technologies for Learning [PDF] by educators George Siemens and Peter Tittenberger. New applications will come and go, and each new tool will have a learning curve. Not all types of technology will be appropriate for educational use or even useful in the context of your course, but many will be worth exploring. Know that not everything you try will work as expected, and that's okay.
- Learn from – and with – your students. The Handbook for Emerging Technologies for Learning also recommends instructors have a "willingness to engage learners in the creation of learning resources" as "co-creators." The online environment allows for a different degree of sharing of information and your students can play a significant role in the overall collaboration. Professor and author Howard Rheingold acknowledges that "the chances of successful outcomes are multiplied when every person in the group makes a commitment to active participation in helping others learn." His approach is to consider those enrolled in his courses as "co-learners," not "students."
- Find a mentor. Who at your institution is leading the way with online teaching? They may be willing to answer a few questions, share their expertise, and recommend resources. You may even find formal faculty mentor programs at your school similar to those at Germanna Community College, Regents Online, and Central Michigan University. If you have the opportunity to teach online without making a transition from face-to-face courses, take advantage of any available tutorials and ask for access to a past or current online course taught by another instructor at your school, so that you can immerse yourself in the environment before you "go live" with your students.
- Explore the larger online learning community. You are not alone. Seek out both school provided and outside resources. Add some of the educators cited in this post to your reading list and find the learning professionals available through your school's faculty development programs and tech support offices. You'll find services ranging from instructional design assistance and multimedia production to webinars and local conferences. Look for opportunities to meet other new and veteran online instructors in your field through social networking sites and professional associations.
Contribute Your Lessons Learned
Creating a meaningful learning experience online is not an easy task. There's a lot you can do to not only prepare yourself for your first course, but also to document your progress along the way. Take notes about what works and what doesn't in your course and with your students, and share your perspective and findings. It's not about just turning yourself over to the technology.
Consider taking an active part in the process of learning to identify and apply the technologies that will improve student achievement and enhance their experiences. From writing a reflective blog to submitting your work to academic publications, you can contribute to the effort by providing your recommendations for future online instructors.
Image credit: Victor1558, Flickr, CC-BY