Tips for Teaching Online from a Researcher and Instructor of Online Learning

A ton of instructors at all levels of education (including adult education) are suddenly being forced to teach through online media as a result of the pandemic. As someone who teaches online and researches online learning, I want to be helpful without being overly prescriptive and making this transition even harder. As many others have pointed out, instructors aren’t engaging in online learning as much as they are suddenly being forced to teach at a distance.

Since many universities have decided to offer summer courses online (and some are looking at the fall), we could be teaching online for a significant time. If you’d like some tips for effective online learning, I’ve compiled a list specifically for this circumstance. I put them roughly in order of importance, so if you want to tackle one each week, start from the top.

  1. Align learning objectives and learning activities. This tip isn’t unique to online learning, but if you are teaching in a new situation, it’s important to remember to align objectives and activities. When students ask questions about how to complete activities, the instructor’s response should be informed by how it supports the learning objectives.
  2. Use headphones and a good microphone. Listening to someone who is using a bad microphone, has an echo from not wearing headphones, or has a lot of background noise is like reading in cursive – students can do it but it takes extra effort. Reduce barriers to attention by considering the sound quality of online communication.
  3. Consider different media options. Online education has a lot of different options, including synchronous lecture-style broadcasting, asynchronous discussion boards and break out rooms. Make conscious decisions about what video or visual aids to use and whether to use synchronous or asynchronous activities.
  4. Use video when talking with students. A big part of face-to-face classrooms is the social environment, and it is easy to lose that aspect in online education. Keep your camera on when you’re talking with people, even look straight at the camera to simulate eye contact. It triggers social norms that we abide by in the classroom, like paying attention to the person speaking. If students’ internet is not strong enough to handle video, most modern videoconferencing tools will automatically shut off videos.
  5. Make sure students have a way to talk with each other. Whether it’s through a chat feature during a videoconference or a discussion board, students will continue to help each other as long as they have an easy avenue to do so. These communications don’t need to be required unless there is a specific learning objective alignment, but make sure that students know it is there.
  6. Use breakout rooms to support social connections. Students can still work in small groups or do paired activities in online courses if you utilize the breakout room feature. While students hesitate to speak up in front of the entire class, they are often comfortable talking in small groups. The instructor can visit each breakout room to check on progress.

For those who will be teaching online during the summer, be aware that your students won’t have made social connections already from face-to-face classes. In that case, the latter items, which are more socially focused, become more important.

If you want more information or have a specific problem to work through, please email me at lmargulieux[at]gsu[dot]edu. I was also just invited to present at a seminar sponsored by Raspberry Pi about online and hybrid instruction on May 5th at noon Eastern Daylight Time. I’ll post a link once I have it for those who would like to talk in more detail.

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