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Top 5 Lessons I’ve Learned from Teaching Online Classes

March 25, 2015

By Sarah VanSlette

Many professors at SIUE are starting to wonder whether online teaching is right for them. I began asking myself that question about 7 years ago, and now I know, after years of creating and revising online courses at 3 different universities, that teaching online courses offers unique challenges and unique benefits. In no particular order, here are the top 5 lessons I’ve learned from teaching online classes:

1. Professors have to work hard to show positive feedback and emotions.

Students are used to an education with face-to-face interactions and an online environment filled with emojis. Many professors are also accustomed to face-to-face interactions with students where we can demonstrate supportive and positive emotions nonverbally. However, we are also trained to write “professionally,” and emojis and exclamation points have no place in our professional writing or online interactions. When students cannot read a professor’s nonverbal messages through an email or message online, many assume that the professor is cold, unfriendly, or boring. I’ve learned to counteract these assumptions by modifying my online course communications by including more exclamation points and happy face emojis, and believe they help me cultivate a more personal, caring persona (similar to the one I think I have in a face-to-face environment).

2. Students are disappointed to find out that online classes require more work than face-to-face classes.

I always stress to my online classes that a face-to-face class requires 3 hours in class per week and an additional 6-9 hours of homework and reading per week, one online class requires an average of 9-12 hours of work per week. This workload, of course, increases substantially during shortened semesters (summer session, winter session) and many students are not accustomed to working 15-20 hours per week on one class. The online environment also necessitates more writing assignments for the students, as writing is the primary way in which they interact with the class and are assessed by their professor. This leads to my next lesson…

3. Grading for an online class takes substantially more time than grading for a face-to-face class.

Because writing assignments are such an integral part of online classes, professors have to grade more writing in an online class. This means that more time needs to be set aside for grading every week, and many students require extensive feedback in order to improve their writing. In face-to-face classes, I often refer students to SIUE’s Writing Center, but since I have to assume that students in an online class may not have access to on campus resources, I remind students to have someone they trust proofread their work before submitting. Still, for a summer session course, I usually spend the better part of a day grading the previous week’s assignments.

4. Assignment guidelines must be detailed and clear for online courses.

It’s not uncommon for students to not read instructions and find themselves lost and confused in an online class. Many students are accustomed to professors going over assignment requirements multiple times throughout the semester and using class time to answer questions about upcoming assignments. This means many students aren’t used to taking the initiative to read over assignment guidelines and would prefer to ask the professor specific questions about the assignment and get in-class announcements.  In an online class, this can be done via email or Blackboard announcement, but it saves me time to have explicit guidelines and a grading rubric for each assignment. That way, when a student emails with questions about the assignment, I can refer them to “page 3 of the assignment guidelines document on Blackboard.” It’s not uncommon for me to have 2-4 pages of assignment guidelines with a list of items that must be included in the assignment and even a rubric outlining exactly how I will be grading them. Blackboard also offers a rubric function in the gradebook which makes it easy to show students how they were evaluated and why they missed points.

5. Some students benefit more than others in an online class environment.

Many shy students fade into the background of a face-to-face class. They are more comfortable listening than sharing their insights and opinions. These students are forced to share their (often great) ideas in an online class, and professors get to know these students in a way that was not possible in a face-to-face class. However, some students may, in the end, prefer face-to-face classes for a variety of reasons. Online classes clearly benefit students who have stronger study skills, who are better at time management, who are more organized, and who are technologically proficient. The SIUE Instructional Design and Learning Technologies office offers an online survey for students to assess their readiness for online learning. The survey results are anonymous but students do have the option to have the results emailed to them if they want to retain a copy.

My experience teaching online courses has been overwhelmingly positive, despite some of the issues I’ve encountered and lessons I’ve learned. I have learned a lot about my students and about my own teaching habits and preferences. I believe I benefit and my students benefit from learning to adapt and evolve along with the educational and social media technologies.

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