Be Prepared for Online Teaching: Essentials and Best Practices

Online teaching can be exciting, rewarding, frustrating, demanding, and challenging all at the same time. The opportunities for new online teaching opportunities are becoming limited now because of the number of schools that offer online classes, and the process of landing a quality adjunct position has become very competitive. For example, it is not uncommon for someone who is highly experienced and educated to receive the dreaded no thank you email from a human resources department, without anyone ever having taken the time to contact them to discuss their background. So what do you do while you wait for your first (or next) online teaching opportunity? The answer can be summed up as becoming prepared for the role and continuing your professional self-development. There are essentials or best practices that every online instructor needs, which will allow you to become prepared once you are familiar with and understand how to apply them.

The work of an online instructor is measured through contractual facilitation duties and end-of-course evaluations, along with periodic classroom reviews. However, meeting the minimum instructional expectations does not ensure you are effective with the process of classroom management or creating optimal classroom conditions that promote learning. You must have the right mindset about your role as an educator, feel comfortable working in a virtual environment, have the time available to devote to your class, and be skilled in managing a class while coaching students towards meeting specific learning objectives. Online teaching is not just focused on a process rather its purpose is centered on the developmental needs of every student. You must become a teacher, mentor, instructor, coach, and facilitator.

Online Teaching – The Basics

It should go without saying that as an online instructor you must manage your time efficiently and have a well-developed schedule. The two components of classroom facilitation that require the most time throughout the entire week involves participation in class discussion and providing meaningful feedback. If you wait until the end of a class week to begin to work on your instructional duties you will easily find yourself overwhelmed and likely to experience stress, along with potentially missed deadlines. The unfortunate side effect of reaching this point is that it will show up in your attitude, the tone of your posts, and the quality of your involvement, interactions, participation, and feedback – all in a potentially negative manner. Your students will quickly pick up any hints of stress and frustration and this can cause student disengagement from the class.

There are instructional basics that will be first determined by the faculty contract you sign, along with any other documents such as a faculty handbook. There are specific requirements concerning the number of days you are expected to check into the class and post participation messages, timelines for completing feedback, responding to student inquires and questions, and the list continues. It is extremely important for the development of your position with the school to read and re-read the required policies on a regular basis to remind yourself of the general expectations. Be certain to also know how updates are communicated to faculty, whether by email or through the faculty website, so you remain current and are not taken by surprise. You will receive periodic class reviews and audits that will help to improve your instructional practice, and you need to be open-minded to the feedback provided so you are able to reach your full potential as an educator.

Another basic aspect of your instructional strategy involves the expectations you develop and communicate with your students. What you want to avoid is holding your students accountable for something you believe they should do if it isn’t obvious to them. You should consider providing clarity about the learning activities and assignments, taking into consideration specific elements that you want to emphasize. For example, if you are teaching an undergraduate class and students are just starting to learn a formatting style, clarify what the expectation is for their work. You could provide a sample paper template and other resources to guide them. It is helpful to establish high expectations for your students, provided that it is attainable and you offer constructive feedback, guidance, and support. When you establish standards that prompt their development you are demonstrating your belief in their capacity, as long as you support their progress as they work towards self-mastery.

Online Teaching Challenges

The initial challenge for new online instructors and students is making a transition from interacting with others face-to-face, with the benefit of visual and verbal cues, to digital communication. While some students may equate interactions via social networking with proficiency in communication through a technologically-enabled environment, there are some distinct differences. One of those differences is related to communicating in complete sentences and articulating your thoughts clearly and concisely, versus text speak or short, abbreviated statements. In addition, exchanges and messages through status updates or other online posts does not require the use of proper spelling and grammar. With time and practice any educator or student can become proficient with this form of communication and interactions. The instructor has the greatest responsibility to engage students and help them become acclimated to the virtual classroom.

Another perceived challenge for online instructors is the distance factor as the belief is that they are at an immediate disadvantage. A common misconception is that you cannot help students if you cannot see them. It is actually the opposite that is correct – an online instructor has a potential for more interaction and involvement with all of their students. Most online classes have a built-in discussion activity and most online schools require their instructors to provide substantive, meaningful feedback. This can help to engage students in the learning process and establish productive working relationships. The level of commitment and dedication made by an instructor will ultimately determine how well the class functions and the students perform. It is easy for students to become discouraged and disengage from their class if the instructor is not virtually present and involved with the class on a frequent basis. The more an instructor is engaged in their class, the greater their responsiveness to students will be in the long-term.

There is a challenge that is related to time management and commitment and it is preparation, which occurs if this is the first time a class is being taught or the first time an instructor teaches a class online. It is imperative that the materials are thoroughly reviewed as that information needs to be utilized as a knowledge base during class discussions, along with all learning activities and written assignments. If you haven’t read the materials the class discussions will not be as engaging as they have the potential to be and it will be difficult to provide a thorough assessment of the written work submitted by your students. They look to what you post and what you state in your feedback to guide their comprehension and analysis of the course topics. If you aren’t prepared it could result in a missed learning opportunity. Being informed and prepared means you are knowledgeable and ready to guide the learning process.

The Essentials & Best Practices for Online Teaching

There are four essentials that every instructor must possess or work towards the development of if they are going to be a successful online educator, and these essentials serve as best practices for online teaching.

The first is developing and maintaining a supportive approach to instruction. Any time you shine a spotlight on a student’s involvement and performance in class, especially when you are asking follow up questions or providing personalized feedback, it may create an uncomfortable feeling – especially if they believe they have made enough of an effort and do not understand your perspective. This is where support is needed most as the distance factor can create a separation between you and your students, and frustration can lead to disengagement. Your support is necessary to help promote a growth mindset or one that involves a willingness to participate in the learning process and persist as challenges arise. Students need reassurance as they work towards meeting the required objectives and developing the required skills. They have to learn to be productive and establish both habits and behaviors that allow them to succeed. Your encouragement can make a difference when they either must persist or give up, and your support can bridge the distance gap.

The second essential requirement and best practice for online teaching is the establishment of a positive instructional presence. You must be readily available and accessible for your students based upon whatever conditions you can establish. For those instructors who are working as adjuncts, they will have other responsibilities to balance and the ability to log onto the classroom or check email may be limited during the day. However, you can establish a working schedule and communicate your availability to your students. It is helpful for them to also know the general time frame you have planned to answer emails and their questions, and when you may be available for direct contact through office hours, chat, phone, or other options that you have established for them. Your active presence is also needed to assure students you are in control of the class and aware of the conditions of this virtual environment. Your involvement also has another effect, you are humanizing the learning experience for students and that will help them feel a sense of belonging to a community of real people rather than a collection of student identification numbers.

The third essential requirement and best practice for all online educators is developing mastery of their own advanced academic skills. As a faculty peer reviewer I have observed poorly written and formatted discussion posts and student feedback, which does not necessarily interrupt the flow of the class; however, it creates a possible negative perception among students. This is especially true for those students who are struggling with the development of their own academic skills and they observe numerous errors made by their instructor. If you are not confident with your writing skills or the required formatting style, seek out professional development workshops and classes. You could also find supplemental resources and for the materials you find that are helpful, share them with your students – I’m certain they will appreciate the additional assistance.

The final essential requirement and best practice for this particular list is critical to your work with online teaching, and it cultivating your own love of learning so that you can inspire your students. It would seem that this should be a natural characteristic of an educator; however, it can be easy to make this a low priority when there are many other demands made of your time for facilitation responsibilities and classroom management. One method of cultivating a lifelong learning approach is to have an intellectual curiosity about the subject you teach and conduct ongoing research to find sources that add to your knowledgebase and can be shared with your students. A love of learning may also inspire you to write and perhaps publish blog posts or articles related to your area of specialization and professional interests. Whatever avenue you pursue, continue to be curious and find resources or outlets that cause you to continue to grow professionally. All of these options will allow you to increase and leverage your knowledge and expertise.

Be an Example for Your Students

The most important aspect of becoming prepared to teach online and excel as an online educator is to establish a high standard of excellence for your work and hold yourself accountable for the responsibilities that come with this position. Above all you must establish yourself as an example for your students, as someone who is fully engaged in the learning process, actively participating, concerned with academic integrity, always posting well-crafted messages and documents, and skillfully managing your classes. You want to teach them the value of education and the powerful potential of distance learning through your interactions with them, the value you add to the class, and the manner in which you guide their development. The level of your involvement will influence how your students respond to this virtual class environment. Make preparations an important aspect of every class you teach and you will establish a rewarding and meaningful career.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has developed expertise with adult education and distance learning and his background includes work as an innovative online educator, college professor, writer and author, corporate trainer, and instructional designer. Dr. J’s areas of expertise include online teaching, online learning, distance learning, e-learning, adult education, curriculum development, and online faculty development.