By the time Indiana University graduate student Kwame Dwamena Dakwa discovered that a student in his online course was falling behind, it was too late.
Frustrated by technical difficulties, she had missed so many assignments that there was no way she could have caught up before the end of the semester, says Dakwa. And because the educational psychology course was online-and it was the first online course that Dakwa had taught-she had slipped through the cracks without anyone noticing.
The case illustrates one of the pitfalls of online teaching. Without facial expressions, body language and the ebb and flow of classroom discussions to guide them, instructors can find it hard to know whether their students are really learning.
"Since you're not seeing the students in class every day," says Dakwa, "the hardest thing is to try to figure out how well the students understand the content."
MASTERING THE TECHNOLOGY
As Dakwa's experience shows, technical difficulties can seriously compromise a student's ability to keep up with coursework.
The first step in ensuring learning, then, is for the instructor to master the software so that students' technical issues can be resolved as quickly as possible. Dakwa suggests familiarizing yourself with the course software well before the course begins. Learn how to post assignments, start new discussion threads and moderate real-time chats.
Online courses can be extremely time-consuming, however, so it's important not to devote too much time to technical issues, says Emily Hixon, an Indiana University graduate student who helps faculty members develop online courses.
"The key to not getting overwhelmed with technical issues is to know who your support personnel are," advises Hixon. Instructors should be prepared to provide front-line technical support, she adds. But if a difficult problem arises, they need to be able to refer students to the appropriate personnel immediately.
Posting a frequently-asked-questions page or establishing "virtual office hours" when you will be available by phone or e-mail can also be helpful. "If students have a technical question, they need a prompt answer," says Hixon. "The fewer people they have to go through to get that answer, the better."
ENGAGING STUDENTS AND TRACKING LEARNING
Even after students master the technology, other challenges to learning can remain. In Dakwa's first class, for instance, many students contributed enthusiastically to the online discussions, but some didn't. And while a kind of community did develop-in part because of shared struggles with the technology-not everyone participated equally.
When he taught the course online again a year later, Dakwa tried to promote a sense of community by posting photographs and short profiles of his students on the course site, and by creating a forum in which they could discuss the course.
Dakwa also suggests holding a face-to-face meeting at the beginning of the semester, if possible. It helps build a sense of community, says Dakwa, and it can improve the quality of online interactions: "It makes the students and the instructor aware of who they're interacting with, so at least you don't pretend as if you're talking to a computer."
Finally, Dakwa adopted a role-playing method developed by Indiana University educational psychologist Curtis Bonk, PhD, to promote engagement in online discussions.
By assigning roles such as naysayer or devil's advocate to individual students, instructors can help them get over their reticence to criticize each other, says Bonk. The roles also encourage students to shape the flow of discussion. And by giving each student a unique function in the discussion-a function for which they are graded-they ensure that everyone participates.
KEEPING DISCUSSIONS FOCUSED
One of the biggest surprises of her first online teaching experience, says Hixon, was how time-consuming it was to moderate online discussions and answer students' questions.
In online courses, students can post their thoughts at any time, so a miscommunication can quickly lead to frustrating discussions and off-topic threads, Hixon notes, even if the instructor is only away from the site for an hour or two. That means that online instructors have to respond quickly and clearly when misunderstandings arise.
However, it doesn't mean they have to micromanage discussions. In fact, says Bonk, online instructors are often most successful when they act as facilitators rather than leaders. By encouraging or requiring students to respond to each other's posts, instructors can simultaneously increase student engagement and reduce their own workload, adds Hixon.
"I try to participate in the same way I expect them to," she says. "I post comments here and there, usually prompting students to think about an issue from another perspective or encouraging them to take their thinking to the next level."
Graded discussions are a useful way of tracking students' learning, says Hixon, but they shouldn't be the only way. Papers, quizzes, real-time chats and group projects can also be useful. To keep students from falling through the cracks, frequent small assignments are often preferable to infrequent large ones. "I think it's important to include other types of activities and to include both group-based and individual activities," says Hixon.
Online Teaching Tips
- Master the software before the course begins.
- If possible, hold face-to-face meetings at the beginning and end of the course.
- Be prepared to spend a lot of time answering questions and moderating discussions.
- Provide quick feedback to keep discussions and assignments on track.
- Use role-playing to engage students in discussions.
- Use a variety of methods to assess student learning, including online discussions, individual and group projects, and papers and quizzes.
- To keep students from falling through the cracks, use frequent small assignments rather than infrequent large ones.