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I often hear from my online students how comfortable they are in my online classes. This is music to my ears because I know that the comfort they feel is removing the barriers to learning that these students may have upon entering the world of online learning.

Despite the ease my students might feel, however, behind the scenes is a well thought-out plan for how to create a feeling in my classroom that encourages my students to participate in the class in a social way.

Some of the things I do to effect this outcome are:

  • A warm welcome letter, or post. This goes a long way to front-loading the feeling of comfort you wish to engender. In this letter, you should not only warmly welcome your students, but also should explain a little bit about how to proceed. Don’t assume the students will see the order in which they are to proceed just because you list items in a certain order. An online class can look like a jumble of words and links to someone who has never seen one before! Let your personality out. Help your students to feel that you are really there to help, guide and educate them.
  • A short bio and an invitation for your students to introduce themselves to each other by sharing their bio. Again, let yourself shine through your words. Give enough information to let yourself be seen, while still maintaining discretion and your own sense of privacy. Your students will most likely follow your lead in the way they post their bio. Make sure you let them know they should only share what they’re comfortable with. An important part of the comfort they will feel will depend upon them feeling a sense of safety and trust.
  • A short video clip showing you talking to them is a great idea if you can stand to do it! I, myself, haven’t felt comfortable enough to do it yet but I’m working up the courage!
  • One way to expedite the getting-to-know-you process is with a photo gallery. If your students don’t feel comfortable posting their own photo, perhaps you can suggest posting a picture of their pet or a landscape that they like.
  • Establish a question forum for the students to ask their questions. Make sure you encourage them to be open about their questions, because many students will wonder about things and the answer to their question may benefit all. But, at the same time, make sure they know they can send you a private email or message for questions or concerns they don’t want to share with the class.
  • A great way to jumpstart discussions is, once students have become facile with the forums, to have students take turns facilitating discussions. When you do this, you will be able to sit back and watch student learning occurring on its own!

Social presence in an online classroom is necessary to keep our classes from becoming a sterile learning environment. Learning HAPPENS when the brain is active and socially engaged!

In my online classroom, I’ve gradually been making the shift toward student-centered learning. Last night I received assignments from students who had participated in a lesson that was completely oriented to active student learning and the results were heart-warming and very encouraging!

The main principles of student-centered learning are that

• Student involvement and participation are necessary for learning
• The student has responsibility for learning
• The teacher acts as facilitator for learning

In this modality, the teacher facilitates the students’ learning toward certain prescribed outcomes. Teachers help students set achievable goals for learning, assess their own learning, discover their own learning styles, and determine how to exploit available resources for learning. Students will acquire effective study and investigation skills that will be valuable throughout their lives.

I think every teacher has had the experience of watching a student falling asleep while listening to a lecture in a face-to-face classroom. We already know that learning is not happening with a sleepy or sleeping student! The antidote is activity and student-centered learning is ACTIVE learning and there is learning happening when a student is active and engaged.

In the lesson that I was receiving assignments for last night, I COULD have given the students the information. But instead I chose to set it up so that they would be able to find the information and share it with each other. Thus, the peer process worked to provide learning to the whole group. Moreover, the students were very excited about this work and showed much more enthusiasm than was shown in previous lessons when I provided the information. My guess is that they will remember this information for a long time but most happily, will have the tools for finding similar information in the future, which is really what being well-educated is all about.

The Governor of Minnesota is giving a boost to online learning

Bigger Than Life

I recently started a Brown Bag Faculty E-Learning series at the college where I work. During the discussion, one faculty member said she thought she would like online teaching more than she actually did. The reason given was that she felt herself to be a shy person and was somewhat intimidated by the face-to-face teaching environment. She thought the relative anonymity of the online modality would suit her better.

What she found was that her classes were dull and lacked engagement by the students. Several other faculty members piped in with similar complaints. We talked quite awhile about how the e-learning world calls for even more outgoingness and a bigger-than-life personality. Somehow we must call our students forth from the tedium, blandness and isolation of distance education.

There are a number of techniques I use that are far from academic and are almost just plain common sense. I try to provide a high level of warmth and friendliness in all my interactions. It’s amazing how words and messages can be perceived on the monitor screen. Capital letters are like shouting. Using a red color also seems angry or brash. The worst is bold, red caps! Using calming colors for emphasis like blue or purple has a soothing effect for nervous students who are trying to get used to the online venue.

Respectful, courteous and friendly expression is imperative. But another important thing is that students really want to know you and it’s important for you to allow it! You will need to strike a comfortable balance, but self-disclosure truly helps a student be open to the lessons you teach. I find that when I reveal something of my self (again the emphasis on appropriate, comfortable self-disclosure), that my students will follow right along.

This modeling is very important in the beginning of the course to set the tone for the rest of the course! Before I realized that I had to be bigger than life, my classes were not nearly as well-engaged as they are now!

Entry-level students who attend school online may have any one or all of these issues:

  • Period of time away from attending school and lack of confidence because of that
  • Limited time to do assignments due to full-time work, or other duties such as family care
  • Slow computer connection
  • Older computer without all of the necessary software to be able to access specific file types
  • Lack of a personal computer and the need to travel to a location where there is a computer such as a library or a friend of relative’s home
  • May have poor study or computer skills

Our job as an online Instructor is to remain AWARE of the many situations that may face our students and to tailor our teaching skills to facilitate their SUCCESS. By doing this, we will fulfill what, in the industry, is known as retention, but just simply means: keeping the student in school long enough to receive their degree.

Here are some suggestions for online retention:

1) Clear instructions about what will happen in the course

a) Syllabus should be complete and detailed with what you expect – I get my students to approve and confirm the syllabus by posting a reply in the appropriate forum

b) Contact information for the Instructor or Facilitator

i) How can you be reached?

ii) What times of day can they call?

iii) When are you NOT available?

c) Software requirements needed to accommodate the material being offered in the course. For my classes, this would be, at a minimum, some office productivity software, Adobe Reader and Flash.

d) Recommended connection speed. They should know that a dial-up connection will not be satisfactory for the most part

e) Any synchronous meetings you may plan, like “chats”

f) Let students know your expectations early!

i) Post a detailed calendar with due dates and make sure it’s accessible from the syllabus

2. Respond promptly to emails or questions that come through the forum

(a) First few days – respond by 6 hours

(b) After that-24 hours

3. Make assignments relevant – please no busy work!

4. Create a help page. This reduces stress for the student by having resources where they can see them. Use the color blue instead of red to further reduce stress

(a) Provide links to resources that are needed in the class such as tutorials, help files, explanations of policy (such as cheating and plagiarism) or good sources of material that support the lessons.

5. Intervene when students miss assignments or are “absent” from class

6. Honor special student contributions by posting “words of wisdom” from students

7. Create assignments that keep students logging in

8. Consistent feedback – make sure you provide regular feedback for your students. Most students want the result of their postings and tests “yesterday”. Help them to feel motivated to continue to contribute by keeping YOUR contributions to them exemplary

9. Build community in your classroom– this will be the topic of the next post!!!!

Last February while attending the ITC (Instructional Technology Council) in St. Petersburg, Florida, I sat in on a break-out session with a presenter who claimed that the Discussion Forum is the heart-and-soul of an online class. As soon as he said that, I knew I was on-board with this educator!

The Forum provides the actual interface that enhances communication not only between instructor and student, but also among all the students. Without the connection afforded by the forum, the class would be reminiscent of a sterile correspondence course.

In a face-to-face (f2f) classroom, what are some of the ways that faculty would meet the needs of the students? Many classroom instructors use the Socratic method of teaching instead of a monologue of lecture that many of us were subjected to. In the Socratic method, the focus is on guiding the student through learning by posing questions that stimulate a student’s natural desire to learn.

How do you mimic the Socratic Method in an online forum? I feel it’s actually easier. A facilitator can think about the best way to word a forum thread in just the right way to elicit substantive posts from her students. The important thing to remember is that you want your students to say something more than a one-word answer. Picture the following two questions and determine which might evoke a one-word answer and which might evoke a lively discussion:

  • “Do you believe in global warming?”
  • “How might global warming change the life of your children and grandchildren?”

Which do you think will elicit a rousing discussion?

Remember that the Discussion Forum is a way to build COMMUNITY in the classroom. In a community, we belong. A community is active and alive and thriving. Our online classrooms can be also!

Reading an article today in the Distance Education Report (Volume 12, Number 18) on “Encouraging Faculty To Go Online” prompts me to report their research plus add to the comments.

Elizabeth Osika, assistant professor at Chicago State University conducted a research study with her colleagues, Rosemary Buteau and Rochelle Johnson, to learn more about factors that prevent faculty from wanting to teach online. The factors that encouraged faculty to teach online were: success with technology, the flexibility of schedule it provided, and the need for distance learning in terms of student demographics. Barriers included unfamiliarity with technology, and lack of infrastructure support from their institution. Persevering with online teaching and/or improving one’s success in online teaching is another hurdle that faculty must face.

Having been an online faculty member for several years, I’m familiar with the issues that teachers face in the area of online education. Probably the most pervasive of the complaints that arise is student engagement. It becomes a question of how to get our students to participate and keep them participating. In other words, how to facilitate student success. Over the next few weeks, I would like to present some specific techniques for engaging students in online classes. When students are engaged, a teacher feels rewarded. The result is an upward spiral that builds greater success in the online venue!