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Tech Literacy II: Skills for the Online Instructor

"Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important."

— Bill Gates
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"Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important." — Bill Gates

Maybe you have been tapped to offer a popular course via the Internet, or you are looking to take advantage of the growing opportunities available to expand your professional portfolio. Online teaching has many advantages for students and teachers, such as 24-hour availability and a wealth of readily available resources. But it also has significant disadvantages, such as a lack of face-to-face contact and the distraction of being just a click away from online games not related to the course. However, if you are willing to embrace the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, you can open the doors to an outstanding educational experience for your students and yourself.

Teaching online often seems daunting to those with no previous experience; however, individuals who are already teaching in a face-to-face format have the most important skills they will need to be successful online educators: subject-matter expertise, the abilities to plan and manage a course, and the expertise to support and mentor students.

Even if you are not currently tech-savvy, computer skills and the knowledge to create, manage, and teach courses online can be gained with perseverance and guidance. Whether you are delivering a course that has already been designed by someone else, or are starting from scratch, this article will provide guidance in obtaining or strengthening your technical skills by outlining the tools and knowledge necessary to be a successful online educator. If you would like to check your general readiness to teach online, Penn State University provides a tool to help determine your current level of preparation.

There is no shortcut for turning a successful face-to-face course into an online one. The first step in becoming a successful online educator is to address the following areas in regards to your own technological literacy:

  • instructional design/planning
  • course management software
  • Web 2.0 literacy
  • troubleshooting

Instructional Design/Planning

Whether the online course is designed by you or someone else, it is essential to have a basic understanding of online course design. Many of the same things that create successful face-to-face experiences also make for excellent online education:

  • engaging and interesting subject matter
  • interactivity among all participants
  • authentic activities and assessment
  • a safe and comfortable learning environment

These elements are likely already part of your repertoire as an effective instructor, but that does not mean that incorporating them into a virtual environment will be easy. In addition to these elements, you will want to add the following components to make the online experience smooth for you and your students:

  • technical support
  • clear objectives
  • easy to follow course structure

Course Management Software/Learning Management System

Not too long ago, an online instructor would need to acquire basic to advanced Web design and development skills in order to teach an online class. This paradigm has changed radically from the early days of online education, with the growing prevalence of course management systems/learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard and Moodle. LMSs allow an online instructor to manage all or almost all aspects of an e-learning course using a single interface in a password protected site. The most common functions of LMSs are:

  • course content delivery (syllabus, readings, videos, etc.)
  • communication (email and discussions)
  • digital drop box (turning in and receiving feedback on assignments)
  • facilitating group work
  • evaluation (quizzes and gradebooks)
  • collaborative learning (wikis, blogs, etc.)

While you may not know exactly which LMS you will use in an online course, you may want to familiarize yourself with the two of the most common ones: Blackboard and Moodle. The University of Miami maintains a Blackboard support site featuring dozens of videos explaining the features of the system and how to use them. MoodleCommons.org has video tutorials covering all aspect of using Moodle to design an online course. Another source for Moodle information is the e-Learning Online Blog. Be sure to check if your institution offers tutorials, faculty orientation, and course development workshops. You will pick up information specific to your organization in these venues, so they are an invaluable resource for the beginning online instructor.

Another excellent source for more detailed information about LMSs in general is available from JISC Infonet based out of Northumbria University.

Web 2.0 Literacy

Up to now, the model for online education has largely been to try to import traditional, teacher-centered, text-based learning into the virtual environment. But while this model may work in the classroom, it fails to take advantage of the full power of the Internet — particularly, the collaborative, user-centered, interactive media capabilities of Web 2.0. As a potential distance learning instructor using the Internet, you should consider the full array of advanced online communication technology available for use in your course.

"The power of education has always been the exchange of ideas and the different interpretations by every individual involved in the learning process. What the Web 2.0 movement has afforded the learning community is a new platform to exchange ideas on a much larger scale then (sic) what has been previously available," said Matt Albers, the director of software engineering at Business Wire in the report "The Implications of Web 2.0 on Distance Education." "It has redefined the digital landscape for educators and allowed for a true constructivists pedagogical approach to teaching. Students can construct the information structure that builds the foundations of understanding and learning with the help from powerful digital tools."

These new technologies have the potential to engage learners at a deep and meaningful level, which not only helps to make the course content more interesting, but makes the learning more personal and helps with long-term retention and application in the real world. There are two ways to think about using these tools: for the instructor to convey information to the students and for students to synthesize information to demonstrate their learning.

The first category, information delivery, is an excellent place to start for an instructor who is either new to teaching or online education. Incorporating Web 2.0 technology to enhance the information presentation in your classroom allows you to expand your presentation beyond text or lecture to incorporate some of the following possibilities:

  • online video from around the world
  • audio podcasts
  • interactive games
  • interactive models
  • crowdsourced information (Wikis, translations, etc.)
  • tutorials and training
  • video/audio conferences with active practitioners in the field
  • photo essay
  • interactive comics
  • virtual worlds

Thinking about having your students use powerful communication technology to synthesize and present their ideas can seem overwhelming, particularly if you are not already comfortable with some of the tools for media production. While planning, think broadly about the options, even if you do not automatically feel comfortable facilitating the use of a particular production tool. There are many potential ways to get the help you need to be successful.

Institutional support is often available, online tutorials are almost always available and you should not discount your students as a source of information and support in using new technology. Remember that this is a collaborative learning experience for both you and your students. Some of the potential ways in which students can use interactive communication technologies to demonstrate their learning and create new knowledge are:

  • writing Wikis or Blogs
  • creating audio podcasts
  • producing online videos
  • building interactive models
  • prototyping video games
  • creating photo essays
  • drafting online comics

This list only scratches the surface of what is possible with the latest Internet technologies, but it will hopefully inspire some creative thinking about other ways that these tools can be used to motivate and engage students. The following links provide more information about the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are being used to enhance online learning:

You will also want to consider any parameters that may be set by the institution where you are teaching. Some allow a great deal of modification by individual instructors, while others can be more restrictive.

Troubleshooting

The final piece of the puzzle in terms of technological literacy for any online educator is in the troubleshooting of student problems as they arise. Make no mistake, if you teach with and/or about technology, you and your students will encounter obstacles along the way. If you are fortunate, your institution will have an excellent IT department with 24-hour support to help resolve any backend problems that you may encounter, such as servers going down, file upload compatibility, or other accessibility problems. This is also valuable information to pass along to your students if available.

Be sure to specify in your introductory message and syllabus that technical support is available from the institution and how to access it. A greater challenge comes from software that the institution does not support, such as online video editors or other third party software. Issues beyond the scope of the software that the IT department supports generally become the instructorís problem. There is no easy solution here, as it is unlikely that any instructor can anticipate every problem that will arise; however, there are steps that you can take to be prepared when problems do arise.

  • Understand the infrastructure of the institution supporting the instruction — know who to ask for help or clarification of policies, etc. Rely on tech support as much as possible.
  • Know the strengths and limitations of the LMS.
  • Familiarize yourself with the software you will be using.
  • Be flexible.

Flexibility

As previously mentioned, you should strive to be flexible in your expectations of your students, and of your own planning, the first time you offer any online class. This is also true of the technology. Experienced instructors know that there are bugs to be worked out the first time a course is offered. You may have planned to have in-depth online discussions regarding the course topics, but the discussion never went deep enough. Next time through, you may want to incorporate a more concrete strategy for facilitating online discussion.

You may find that requiring students to make two 20-minute video presentations was unrealistic, or that the online video editing software you selected was not robust enough to handle the assignment. The seasoned educator will be flexible and re-think the course for the next time. The same principle applies during the course, be prepared with an alternative video-editing program, or to allow students to swap creating an enhanced audio podcast (still images and narration) for the video.

When teaching with technology, flexibility will not only be one of the most important traits you can possess as a teacher, but should also be a characteristic that you emphasize for your students as well. The ever-changing nature of technology requires an ability to adjust on the fly. Software that is widely used today will likely be replaced by a new version, new product or a completely new concept in the near future. Failure to adapt to these changes will only make you an outdated virtual learning facilitator.